Mexico’s former top cop is on trial in New York for drug offenses

Just days after the trial of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán began, a witness dropped a bombastic allegation: a Sinaloa cartel operative testified that he personally gave Mexico’s top drug cop a briefcase full of cash — millions in bribes, um to let cartels operate with impunity.

Now the man thought to be the architect of Mexico’s anti-drug war and a key partner of US law enforcement is on trial in the same federal court in New York on Tuesday. Genaro García Luna – head of the Mexican version of the FBI from 2001 to 2005 and secretary of public safety from 2006 to 2012 – is accused of conspiring with the criminals he allegedly wanted to take down.

García Luna, 54, who was arrested in December 2019, is the highest-ranking Mexican official to be tried in the US on drug trafficking charges – four counts of conspiracy to traffic cocaine. It’s like the head of the FBI or Drug Enforcement Agency being accused of taking millions of dollars in drug money.

García Luna met frequently with senior US security officials during his tenure and was often portrayed as the public face of Mexico’s drug war. But prosecutors say they plan to show the former top Mexican cop provided the cartel with safe passage for its drug shipments and sensitive information about investigations into the cartel or rival gangs.

“This is the most important national security and drug trafficking trial of this century, even more so than El Chapo’s,” said Rodolfo Soriano Núñez, a sociologist and former professor who has long studied the use of military force in Mexico.

“We knew Chapo was dirty,” Soriano said, “but Chapo is nothing more than a farmer from rural Sinaloa.” In contrast, García Luna was a powerful official who earned the trust of Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón from 2006 to 2012 who mobilized the military and federal police in a bloody battle against drug cartels that spanned more than decades.

“It has the potential to uncover one of the key aspects of the so-called drug war here in Mexico,” Soriano said, “which is the connections, the connections, the connection between political power and the so-called drug gangs.”

A jury is expected to be selected earlier this week, and opening arguments in the Brooklyn court will follow soon.

Mexico's President Felipe Calderón speaks into a microphone while Genaro García Luna stands behind him.

Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón addresses the press in 2010 while then-Security Minister Genaro García Luna stands behind him.

(Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press)

The stakes of the process

The testimonies and evidence that could come out during the trial could have far-reaching ramifications on both sides of the border.

With a career spanning three decades, García Luna has intimate knowledge of Mexico’s drug war and ties to the country’s governments dating back to the early 2000s. And he had a particularly close relationship with the DEA and the FBI from the second half of President George W. Bush’s second administration to President Obama’s first, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University.

The revelations from the trial could represent a major blemish for previous governments in Mexico. For critics of the drug war, a conviction would confirm the failure of a joint effort by the US and Mexico, which received billions of dollars in US aid and was blamed for tens of thousands of deaths – but did little to reduce cartel violence or smuggling.

“The collaboration has not resulted in the dismantling of drug trafficking networks,” Correa-Cabrera said. “Today, the United States is using more drugs than ever before, and more drugs are crossing the border into the United States than ever before.”

The process could put additional strain on the declining security cooperation between the two countries. During the Calderón years, U.S. security agencies essentially had a free pass to go anywhere in Mexico, Correa-Cabrera said.

Las agencias entraban hasta la cocina”, Correa-Cabrera said, using a Mexican phrase that translates to “The agencies made it to the kitchen.” She noted that the current Mexican government has shifted to more limited cooperation with US security agencies on Mexican territory .

And with the 2024 US presidential election on the horizon, experts say the United States doesn’t have much leverage to pressure Mexican authorities to change that, given how much Washington relies on Mexico City to to control migration to the US through Mexico.

Who is Garcia Luna?

As Minister of Public Safety from 2006 to 2012, García Luna is widely credited as the architect of Calderón’s controversial war on drug cartels.

García Luna began his career in 1989 at the National Intelligence Center, Mexico’s CIA equivalent, and joined a counter-terrorism task force. After nearly a decade, he joined the federal police force, and in 2001 then-President Vicente Fox appointed him head of the new federal investigative agency.

At the now-defunct agency known as the AFI, García Luna led what has been hailed as a transformation of the Mexican police force.

In a series of interviews Correa-Cabrera conducted with García Luna in 2017 and 2018, he said that the federal judicial police had ties to the drug trade and that he had been given the responsibility to take care of it.

“AFI was the promise of a better police force that had nothing to do with drug trafficking,” she said.

The Mexican government at the time compared the new agency to the FBI. When Calderón took over the presidency in 2006, he appointed García Luna to his cabinet.

A man speaks on a podium in front of an image of a helicopter.

Genaro García Luna speaks during a 2011 ceremony in Mexico City.

(Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press)

Rumors and cold tracks

Shortly after Fox took office in 2000, the government captured several members of the Sinaloa cartel. But after that first sprint, things calmed down. Opposition politicians and security experts began to wonder why the government’s hunt for the elusive cartel leader El Chapo had seemingly died down.

Calderón’s declaration of war on the drug cartels shattered old alliances and propelled drug lords to fight for territory. There were high-profile arrests, but they came mostly from rival organizations like the Zetas or the Beltrán Leyva organization. Rumors of government favoritism for the Sinaloa cartel grew louder.

During the heat of the drug wars in 2008, Mexicans in several states woke up to banners or Narcomantas hung on bridges or spread over the entrance of a cathedral, which García Luna accused of protecting drug dealers.

One of the most controversial claims appeared in a letter published in November 2012 in the pages of the respected national newspaper Reforma. Édgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villareal, a drug lord for the Sinaloa and Beltrán Leyva cartels, wrote from prison, accusing García Luna and his close associates of receiving drug money since 2002.

“I can testify that he received money from me, drug trafficking groups, and organized crime,” Valdez said, before adding, “I may be guilty of a lot, but you, the officers, are part of the criminal fabric of this country.” .”

Officials said the allegations were an attempt by Valdez to gain privileges in prison; García Luna remained untouched. (Valdez was sentenced to 49 years in prison by a US judge in 2018.)

García Luna’s life in Miami

When Calderón’s term ended in 2012, García Luna slipped out of the public eye. Married with two children, he obtained permanent residency in the United States and soon became a regular guest at American university conferences.

He founded a private security consulting and risk management firm with offices in Miami and Mexico City. His clientele included foreign governments and companies, and his main client was the Mexican government, his defense said in the pretrial filings.

In 2018 he applied for naturalization in the USA. Before his arrest in Miami, he lived in a waterfront mansion “with a dock and a boat for his use,” all given to him by his business partners because “he had no wealth to speak of at the time,” García Luna’s defense wrote in a court record.

“Because his business partners wanted to ensure that Mr. García Luna continued in their business, they provided him with an apartment in Miami,” the defense wrote.

On to Brooklyn

It seems unlikely that García Luna’s trial, which is expected to last two months, will be as theatrical as that of Guzmán, a world-renowned escape artist who had long evaded arrest.

But prosecutors have cabled in court filings that they expect to present numerous witnesses – including former senior members of the Sinaloa cartel – to testify about the bribes García Luna is accused of accepting.

The judge granted prosecutors’ requests for an anonymous and partially isolated jury the same protections that were used during Guzmán’s trial.

The files in the case are extensive. García Luna’s public defender, who was hired by the court after a federal judge ordered the seizure of the defendant’s assets, has complained at first court hearings that he had to go through “millions of pages” of evidence with little support.

If found guilty, García Luna faces a minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life imprisonment.

Another arrest at LAX

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has called the case against García Luna symbolic of the institutional corruption of his predecessors, particularly Calderón, a longtime political opponent.

However, López Obrador was furious when US authorities arrested a former Mexican defense minister, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, a year after García Luna was arrested in Dallas, shortly after he landed with his family at Los Angeles International Airport.

Like García Luna, Cienfuegos has been charged with collaborating with Mexican drug cartels during his tenure.

López Obrador, who has faced fierce backlash from the powerful military, condemned the charges against Cienfuegos and called on Washington to release the retired general. The Trump administration eventually dropped the charges and returned Cienfuegos to Mexico, where he was released.

In Mexico, López Obrador – who once attacked the use of the military against drug cartels – has been sharply criticized for greatly expanding the military’s role in internal security.

“He repeats the same mistakes [as Calderón]’ Soriano said.

Corona is a special correspondent. Times Mexico City bureau chief Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.