Agents had been closing in on him for months, suspecting that this central figure in the drug trade was a high-ranking official in the Mexican military.
All of a sudden, one of the people under surveillance told his fellow cartel members that El Padrino happened to be on television at that very moment. The agents quickly checked to see who it was — and found it was the Mexican secretary of defence, Gen Salvador Cienfuegos, according to four American officials involved in the investigation.
In that moment, the authorities say, they finally confirmed that the mystery patron of one of the nation’s most violent drug cartels was actually the leader in charge of waging Mexico’s war against organised crime.
It was a stunning display of how deep the tendrils of organised crime run in Mexico, and on Thursday night Cienfuegos was taken into custody by the American authorities at the Los Angeles airport while traveling with his family.
Even for Mexico, a country often inured to the unrelenting violence and corruption that have gripped it for years, the arrest was nothing less than extraordinary, piercing the veil of invincibility that the nation’s armed forces have long enjoyed.
Cienfuegos, Mexico’s defence minister from 2012 to 2018, is being charged with laundering money and trafficking heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana from late 2015 through early 2017, according to an indictment unsealed in the Eastern District of New York on Friday.
The charges are the result of a multiyear sting that investigators called Operation Padrino. Officials say that Cienfuegos helped the H-2 cartel, a criminal group that committed horrific acts of violence as part of its drug smuggling business, with its maritime shipments. In exchange for lucrative payouts, officials say, Cienfuegos also directed military operations away from the cartel and toward its rivals.
The news not only casts a pall over Mexico’s fight against organised crime, but also underscores the extent of corruption at the highest levels of government. Cienfuegos was defence minister throughout the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who left office two years ago.
The damage to Mexico is hard to overstate. The general’s arrest comes only 10 months after another top Mexican official — who once led the Mexican equivalent of the FBI — was indicted in New York on charges of taking bribes while in office to protect the Sinaloa drug cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal mafias.
That official, Genaro García Luna, served as the head of Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency from 2001 to 2005, and for the next six years was Mexico’s secretary of public security, a Cabinet-level position. In that role, he had the task of helping the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, create the nation’s strategy to battle drug cartels.
If the men are convicted, it means that two of the highest-ranking and most widely respected commanders ever to oversee the war on drugs in Mexico were working with organised crime — helping the very cartels that continue to kill record numbers of Mexicans.
The two cases call into question the American role in the drug war as well. For years, US officials have helped shape and fund Mexico’s strategies, and they have relied on their Mexican counterparts for operations, intelligence and broad security cooperation. If the allegations hold up, some of those same Mexican leaders were playing a double game.
“The difficulty in working in Mexico where you have this level of corruption is that you never really know who you’re working with,” said Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Agency. “There’s always a concern that Mexican law enforcement could compromise you, or compromise an informant, or compromise an investigation.”
Both García Luna and Cienfuegos served at the top of the government when homicides spiked to historic levels, drug cartels waged war and military operations were expanded.
A mercurial presence, Cienfuegos symbolised the prominent role the military plays in Mexico. Commanders are granted an extraordinary amount of autonomy, seldom bowing to political pressures and typically enjoying protection by the president.
“There has never been a minister of defence in Mexico arrested,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister. “The minister of defence in Mexico is a guy that not only runs the army and is a military man, but he reports directly to the president. There is no one above him except the president.”
Because of that power and autonomy, analysts and others have long suspected some top leaders of corruption. But with their elevated status, no one dared investigate — at least not in Mexico.
“This is a huge deal,” said Alejandro Madrazo, a professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico. “The military has become way more corrupt and way more abusive since the war on drugs was declared, and for the first time they may not be untouchable — but not by the Mexican government, by the American government.”
On Friday, responding to the arrest, Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, both defended the military and decried the bad actors in it. But it was unclear whether López Obrador would step back from his heavy reliance on the military, whose role has expanded during his administration to include everything from construction to public security.
Mexico’s military has been a central part of the nation’s domestic security since the crackdown on drug cartels began in 2006, with soldiers deployed to regions overrun by organised crime. The secretary of defense oversees that effort.
The use of soldiers trained in combat but not in policing has brought problems well beyond corruption. With the military front and centre in the fight against narcotics trafficking, the Mexican government has never built an effective police force.
In December 2017, Mexico passed a security law cementing the military’s role in fighting the drug war, outraging the United Nations and human rights groups. They warned that the measure would lead to abuses, leave troops on the streets indefinitely and militarise police activities for the foreseeable future.
Cienfuegos played a crucial role in convincing politicians to pass the law, which gave the military legal permission to do what it had been doing for a decade without explicit authorisation. At one point, he threatened to withdraw his troops from the streets, arguing they were not trained for domestic security and were exposed legally.
The military has repeatedly been singled out for human rights abuses and the use of excessive force, including accusations of extrajudicial killings that dogged the armed forces throughout Cienfuegos’ tenure as defence minister.
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