Mexico’s president has pledged to clean up the country’s armed forces after a former defence minister was arrested in the United States on drug trafficking and money laundering charges this week.
Salvador Cienfuegos, who served as Mexico’s defence chief from 2012 to 2018, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday, taking Mexico’s security establishment by surprise, senior federal sources said.
US authorities did not warn their Mexican counterparts of the operation.
According to documents released by US federal prosecutors in New York on Friday, prosecutors accuse Cienfuegos of conspiring to produce and distribute heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and cannabis in the US between December 2015 and February 2017.
“In exchange for bribe payments, he permitted the H-2 Cartel – a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder – to operate with impunity in Mexico,” the indictment read.
The prosecution said the evidence against the retired general, nicknamed “The Godfather”, included thousands of Blackberry messages between Cienfuegos and cartel members that were intercepted by the authorities.
During a brief hearing in Los Angeles on Friday, a federal magistrate judge ordered Cienfuegos remain in US custody at least until a formal hearing on his detention is held next week. The ex-defence minister had asked for a postponement of the detention hearing.
“It is very regrettable that a defence secretary is arrested, accused of links with drug trafficking,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said at his daily news conference earlier on Friday.
“We’re facing an unprecedented situation,” Lopez Obrador added, noting that two former Mexican ministers are now detained in the US on allegations of links to drug cartels.
“Of course, all this must be proven,” he said.
Lopez Obrador, who came to power in 2018 promising to crack down on corruption, added that the arrests are a clear indication that Mexico was previously run by “a narco-government and without doubt a mafia government”.
Mexico’s former public security minister from 2006 to 2012, Genaro Garcia Luna, was detained in Texas in December 2019 on charges of taking huge bribes to allow the notorious Sinaloa Cartel ship drugs into the US, which he denies.
The latest arrest could lead US authorities to pursue even more prominent targets, said Mike Vigil, former head of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
There had been no open investigation into Cienfuegos in Mexico and his arrest was linked to the case against Garcia Luna, said Lopez Obrador.
Garcia Luna is on trial in New York after being charged with accepting millions of dollars in bribes from captured kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, which he was meant to fight.
Like Garcia Luna, Cienfuegos had been a major figure in Mexico’s so-called drug war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over the past 20 years.
Under Cienfuegos, the army was accused of extrajudicial killings, including the June 2014 Tlatlaya massacre in central Mexico, where 22 drug gang members were shot dead.
Cienfuegos’s case is the first time a former defence minister has been arrested and will have far-reaching implications.
Lopez Obrador pledged to suspend anyone in his government who may be implicated in the charges.
“We won’t cover up for anybody,” he said, adding that his government is “cleaning up, purifying public life”.
Under Lopez Obrador, the armed forces have taken on more responsibility, including establishing a militarised national police force, overseeing port security and working on infrastructure projects.
Some Mexican officials were privately shocked at the detention of Cienfuegos at the Los Angeles airport, worrying it was an unprecedented US intervention against a symbol of Mexican national security.
“It was totally unexpected. I never saw this coming, never, never,” said a senior police source.