MEXICO CITY — American legislation enforcement brokers had been listening in as Mexican cartel members chattered on a wiretap, speaking a few highly effective, shadowy determine often known as El Padrino, or The Godfather.
Brokers had been closing in on him for months, suspecting that this central determine within the drug commerce was a high-ranking official within the Mexican army.
Abruptly, one of many folks below surveillance advised his fellow cartel members that El Padrino occurred to be on tv at that very second. The brokers rapidly checked to see who it was — and located it was the Mexican secretary of protection, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, in accordance with 4 American officers concerned within the investigation.
In that second, the authorities say, they lastly confirmed that the thriller patron of one of many nation’s most violent drug cartels was really the chief accountable for waging Mexico’s battle in opposition to organized crime.
It was a surprising show of how deep the tendrils of organized crime run in Mexico, and on Thursday evening Common Cienfuegos was taken into custody by the American authorities on the Los Angeles airport whereas touring together with his household.
Even for Mexico, a rustic usually inured to the unrelenting violence and corruption which have gripped it for years, the arrest was nothing lower than extraordinary, piercing the veil of invincibility that the nation’s armed forces have lengthy loved.
Mr. Cienfuegos, Mexico’s protection minister from 2012 to 2018, is being charged with laundering cash and trafficking heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana from late 2015 by way of early 2017, in accordance with an indictment unsealed within the Japanese District of New York on Friday.
The fees are the results of a multi-year sting that investigators referred to as Operation Padrino. Officers say that Common Cienfuegos helped the H-2 cartel, a legal group that dedicated horrific acts of violence as a part of its drug smuggling enterprise, with its maritime shipments. In alternate for profitable payouts, officers say, Common Cienfuegos additionally directed army operations away from the cartel and towards its rivals.
The information not solely casts a pall over Mexico’s combat in opposition to organized crime, but in addition underscores the extent of corruption on the highest ranges of presidency. Common Cienfuegos was protection minister all through the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who left workplace two years in the past.
The harm to Mexico is difficult to overstate. The overall’s arrest comes solely 10 months after one other high Mexican official — who as soon as led the Mexican equal of the F.B.I. — was indicted in New York on expenses of taking bribes whereas in workplace to guard the Sinaloa drug cartel, certainly one of Mexico’s strongest legal mafias.
That official, Genaro García Luna, served as the pinnacle of Mexico’s Federal Investigation Company from 2001 to 2005, and for the following six years was Mexico’s secretary of public safety, a cabinet-level place. In that position, he had the duty of serving to the president on the time, Felipe Calderón, create the nation’s technique to battle drug cartels.
If the lads are convicted, it implies that two of the highest-ranking and most generally revered commanders ever to supervise the battle on medicine in Mexico had been working with organized crime — serving to the very cartels that proceed to kill report numbers of Mexicans.
The 2 circumstances name into query the American position within the drug battle as nicely. For years, American officers have helped form and fund Mexico’s methods, they usually have relied on their Mexican counterparts for operations, intelligence and broad safety cooperation. If the allegations maintain up, a few of those self same Mexican leaders had been taking part in a double recreation.
“The issue in working in Mexico the place you could have this degree of corruption is that you simply by no means actually know who you’re working with,” stated Mike Vigil, a former chief of worldwide operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Company. “There’s all the time a priority that Mexican legislation enforcement may compromise you, or compromise an informant, or compromise an investigation.”
Each Mr. García Luna and Common Cienfuegos served on the high of the federal government when homicides spiked to historic ranges, drug cartels waged battle and army operations had been expanded.
A mercurial presence, Common Cienfuegos symbolized the outstanding position the army performs in Mexico. Commanders are granted a unprecedented quantity of autonomy, seldom bowing to political pressures and sometimes having fun with safety by the president.
“There has by no means been a minister of protection in Mexico arrested,” stated Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican overseas minister. “The minister of protection in Mexico is a man that not solely runs the military and is a army man, however he studies on to the president. There isn’t a one above him besides the president.”
Due to that energy and autonomy, analysts and others have lengthy suspected some high leaders of corruption. However with their elevated standing, nobody dared examine — at the very least not in Mexico.
“This can be a big deal,” stated Alejandro Madrazo, a professor at CIDE, a college in Mexico. “The army has grow to be far more corrupt and far more abusive because the battle on medicine was declared, and for the primary time they might not be untouchable — however not by the Mexican authorities, by the American authorities.”
On Friday, responding to the arrest, Mexico’s present president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, each defended the army and decried the dangerous actors in it. But it surely was unclear whether or not Mr. López Obrador would step again from his heavy reliance on the army, whose position has expanded throughout his administration to incorporate the whole lot from building to public safety.
Mexico’s army has been a central a part of the nation’s home safety because the crackdown on drug cartels started in 2006, with troopers deployed to areas overrun by organized crime. The secretary of protection oversees that effort.
The usage of troopers skilled in fight however not in policing has introduced issues nicely past corruption. With the army entrance and heart within the combat in opposition to narcotics trafficking, the Mexican authorities has by no means constructed an efficient police pressure.
In December 2017, Mexico handed a safety legislation cementing the army’s position in combating the drug battle, outraging the United Nations and human rights teams. They warned that the measure would result in abuses, depart troops on the streets indefinitely and militarize police actions for the foreseeable future.
Common Cienfuegos performed a vital position in convincing politicians to cross the legislation, which gave the army authorized permission to do what it had been doing for a decade with out express authorization. At one level, he threatened to withdraw his troops from the streets, arguing they weren’t skilled for home safety and had been uncovered legally.
However Common Cienfuegos additionally defended the army, saying it was the one establishment successfully confronting organized crime. As drug violence rocketed, he requested repeatedly that the federal authorities present a authorized framework to guard the forces.
“At the moment the crimes we’re coping with are of one other degree and significance; they contain lots of people, typically total households, and we’re performing with no authorized body,” Common Cienfuegos stated in March 2018. “With out it, our assistance is impeded.”
The army has repeatedly been singled out for human rights abuses and using extreme pressure, together with accusations of extrajudicial killings that dogged the armed forces all through Common Cienfuegos’s tenure as protection minister.
His arrest doesn’t seem to have been a joint operation with the Mexican authorities. It reaches again to an American-led investigation in late 2013 of a Mexican drug cartel run by Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, a successor to the as soon as highly effective Beltran-Leyva drug group, in accordance with two American legislation enforcement officers.
Regardless that a gaggle of American brokers was in a position on the time to establish Common Cienfuegos as a corrupt accomplice within the Meza Flores group, there was pushback from different American and Mexican legislation enforcement businesses, and Common Cienfuegos was by no means totally investigated, one of many officers stated.
However by 2015, the official stated, strain to do one thing about Common Cienfuegos elevated. At the very least two separate American wiretaps started to select up chatter a few highly effective underworld determine who was known as “Padrino” and was believed to be Common Cienfuegos.
The wiretaps had focused the Sinaloa cartel and the H-2 cartel, a smaller legal group linked to Mr. Meza Flores’s group, the previous official stated.
The U.S. lawyer’s workplace in Brooklyn has in latest months grow to be floor zero for circumstances associated to official corruption in Mexico.
Prosecutors there haven’t solely charged Mr. García Luna and two of his former associates, Ramon Pequeno and Luis Cardenas Palomino, however have additionally prosecuted Edgar Veytia, the previous lawyer basic of the state of Nayarit. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail final October for conspiring with the H-2 cartel.
The case in opposition to Common Cienfuegos helps illustrate in some methods why it has been so troublesome for Mexico to take the lead in these investigations.
Among the many findings by U.S. authorities: Common Cienfuegos was actively corrupting different Mexican officers by introducing high-level cartel members to these prepared to swap bribes for favors.
At one level, courtroom information say, he alerted the cartel that there was a U.S. investigation into their actions, prompting them to kill a fellow member they falsely believed to be sharing data with the authorities.
Azam Ahmed reported from Mexico Metropolis, and Alan Feuer from New York. Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting from Washington, and Louis Keene from Los Angeles.