MEXICO CITY - Mexico’s former defense minister is facing four drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges in U.S. federal courts, related to the manufacture and distribution of heroin, cocaine and other illegal substances, according to an indictment made public Friday.
The ex-minister, retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, was detained Thursday at the Los Angeles International Airport. The news was a bombshell in Mexico, where the military is one of the most trusted institutions.
His arrest has raised the startling possibility that top security officials have secretly been working with drug traffickers during most of the U.S.-backed offensive against cartels that began in 2006.
The public-security minister in the first six years of that effort, Genero Garcia Luna, is now awaiting trial in New York on allegations of accepting bribes to help the Sinaloa Cartel. He has pleaded not guilty. Cienfuegos served as defense minister in the following administration, from 2012 to 2018.
“We had this underlying construct of a fight of good against evil, a clear line of confronting them as monolithic blocks,” said Falko Ernst, the senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group. “With Garcia Luna, that comes crashing down” - and the arrest of Cienfuegos further undermines that narrative, he said.
Mexico is the No. 1 source of heroin and methamphetamines reaching the United States, and a major corridor for cocaine and fentanyl. Since 2007, the U.S. government has provided the country with about $3 billion in security and justice aid through the Merida Initiative.
The Trump administration recently warned that unless it showed progress, “Mexico will be at serious risk of being found to have failed” to meet its international drug-control commitments. It called for more efforts to dismantle drug organizations and crack down on fentanyl production.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Cienfuegos faces charges in the same Brooklyn federal court that is handling Garcia Luna’s case and that was the site of the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former head of the Sinaloa Cartel. He was convicted last year.
That suggested that the latest allegations may be part of a sprawling investigation into how one of the world’s most powerful cartels gained influence in the highest echelons of the Mexican government.
“We are facing an unprecedented situation,” López Obrador told his daily news conference, referring to the detentions of the two former ministers. “This is an undeniable sign of the decomposition of the regime.”
The president has criticized the military-led “war on drugs,” which has contributed to soaring violence in Mexico. More than 300,000 people have been killed since 2006. Nonetheless, López Obrador has called on the armed forces for an increasing number of tasks, from helping build an airport to distributing medical supplies.
The president said that anyone implicated in Cienfuegos’s case who is currently serving in the government would be suspended, retired or investigated. “We are not going to cover up for anyone,” he said.
But he declared his confidence in the armed forces, noting that he had made his own choice of defense minister, Luis Crescencio Sandoval, rather than rely on suggestions from Cienfuegos.
Analysts said the arrest had undoubtedly created unease in the military. Numerous senior officials were promoted by Cienfuegos. And his case could lead to other detentions. “To do these crimes, you need the participation of other people,” said Ricardo Márquez Blas, a former Mexican security official.
Two of Garcia Luna’s top aides, former police officials Ramón Pequeño García and Luis Cárdenas Palomino, have also been indicted in U.S. federal court on drug corruption charges.
López Obrador said his government had no pending charges against Cienfuegos and heard of the investigation only two weeks ago, from his ambassador in Washington, Martha Bárcena. She said that “there was talk of an investigation underway, which involved Gen. Cienfuegos,” he said.
Márquez Blas said that was a reflection on the state of the bilateral relationship.
“U.S. authorities don’t have full confidence in the Mexican government,” he said.
There was no immediate reaction to Cienfuegos' arrest by former president Enrique Peña Nieto, who had named him as defense minister. Felipe Calderón, who was president from 2006 to 2012, said he had no idea Garcia Luna might have been involved in organized crime.
Cienfuegos retired in 2018. He received an award that year from the Pentagon’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies.