Corruption Trial of Mexican Ex-Lawman Ripples Beyond Courtroom

As the prosecution of Genaro Garciá Luna, Mexico’s former top security official, starts winding down, a jury will be called on to answer the central question in the case: whether Mr. Garciá Luna, who once served as the public face of his country’s war on drugs, led a double life and took millions in bribes from the very cartels he was supposedly pursuing.

But the trial’s outcome will also send ripples far beyond the Brooklyn federal courthouse where the jurors have heard stories about boatloads of cocaine, a cartel civil war and vast cash payments made to Mr. García Luna in places like a drug-filled warehouse and a carwash owned by a gangster.

An acquittal in the case could spark a firestorm in Mexico, casting doubt on the ability of U.S. authorities to collect convincing evidence about top-level Mexican corruption, which has traditionally received less scrutiny than the crimes of cartel kingpins.

A conviction could have an equally serious but quieter effect, leaving unresolved a question mostly unanswered during the trial: What did American officials know about Mr. García Luna’s ties to Mexico’s biggest crime group, the Sinaloa drug cartel, when he served as director of Mexico’s equivalent of the F.B.I. and then as the country’s public security secretary, a powerful cabinet-level post?

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: It is unlikely to affect the dismal spiral of cartel bloodshed in Mexico or stem the flow of drugs into the United States.

Dangerous narcotics like fentanyl continue to spill across the border, killing more Americans in recent years than gun violence and traffic accidents combined.

And despite more than $3 billion in foreign aid from the United States over the past 15 years, Mexican law enforcement has been unable to stop the growth of the cartels, which have seized control of large swaths of the country and unleashed violence that has left hundreds of thousands of people dead, wounded or disappeared.

The indictment against Mr. García Luna, the highest-ranking Mexican official to be tried in the United States for drug trafficking and corruption charges, was supposed to have marked a new day for accountability: the first in a series of U.S. corruption cases brought against Mexican officials, American federal prosecutors say.

The charges were filed in late 2019 in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, months after a witness at the trial of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo, testified in spectacular fashion about handing Mr. García Luna suitcases stuffed with cash.

Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo, after his recapture in 2016.Credit…Alfredo Estrella/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But since then, the appetite for such prosecutions has vanished, largely because of the collapse of another Mexican corruption case in Brooklyn. In that one, Salvador Cienfuegos, Mexico’s former defense minister, was arrested in late 2020 in Los Angeles, and accused of bribery and drug trafficking. But weeks later, after intense pressure from Mexico, he was released, as prosecutors dropped the charges.

An acquittal in the García Luna case could add to the already deep sense of defeat among U.S. prosecutors, while at the same time giving the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, fresh energy to criticize the American legal and political systems.

A conviction could help blunt such arguments, though it would not likely settle a different issue: the lingering question of what U.S. officials knew about Mr. García Luna and when they knew it. The jury at the trial has heard little about the suspicions in U.S. political and law-enforcement circles about Mr. García Luna and the decisions made, despite them, to continue working with him.

Several U.S. and Mexican law-enforcement officers came forward to describe those suspicions but spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Others interviewed were former Mexican or American officials who are now private government consultants working on sensitive matters.

Rumors about Mr. García Luna’s connections to the Sinaloa cartel started swirling as early as 2001, the year he took control of the Federal Investigation Agency — and the same year Mr. Guzmán escaped from a Mexican prison. In the years that followed, there were persistent whispers in the Mexican news media about his ties to the cartel.

Michael Chavarría said that soon after taking over the Drug Enforcement Administration’s office in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2001, he realized that sensitive information the agency had shared with Mexican counterparts was being used to tip off traffickers. When he informed his superiors at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, he said, they shrugged him off, claiming there was no smoking gun.

Several American law-enforcement officers who served in the field in Mexico say that was a common refrain among diplomats and high-ranking officials in the embassy.

The field officers were often told that unproven corruption allegations were made all the time about Mexican officials and that in the absence of concrete — or unclassified — evidence, it was more important to work with men like Mr. García Luna to fight drug trafficking and violence.

A protester outside the courthouse where Mr. García Luna is on trial in Brooklyn. The sign reads: “García Luna, make amends for your mistake and do not cover for anyone. Calderón did know,” referring to the former Mexican president Felipe Calderón.Credit…Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In late 2008, however, as the accusations against Mr. García Luna became louder, American officials launched an investigation into leaks by police officials under Mr. García Luna, according to a former U.S. official.

The former official said the inquiry came around the same time as the murder of a D.E.A. informant inside a cartel run by Arturo Beltrán Leyva — who trial witnesses have said was Mr. García Luna’s patron — and a spate of botched raids, including one on Mr. Beltrán Leyva’s home in Acapulco.

Two D.E.A. agents in Mexico at the time said a top Mexican police official close to Mr. García Luna helped spirit Mr. Beltrán Leyva out of the house. Israel Avila, a Sinaloa cartel accountant, bolstered that account, testifying at the trial that Mr. García Luna’s men helped Mr. Beltrán Leyva get away by disguising him as a federal police officer.

Similar suspicions about Mr. García Luna emerged around the same time within the Mexican police.

One federal officer, Francisco Cañedo Zavaleta, filed a report about Mr. García Luna to Mexican congressional officials in November 2008, claiming he had seen him with Mr. Beltrán Leyva on the side of a road near Cuernavaca. Six months earlier, another federal officer, Javier Herrera Valles, wrote a letter to Felipe Calderón, then Mexico’s president, accusing Mr. García Luna of ties to organized crime.

Mr. García Luna with Mexico’s then-president, Felipe Calderon, at a ceremony to honor federal police officers in 2011.Credit…Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press

Both officers were ultimately arrested on charges of working for the Sinaloa cartel themselves, and spent years in custody before they were cleared for lack of evidence.

Miguel Madrigal, a D.E.A. agent once based in Mexico City, was among the first U.S. law-enforcement officers to get a direct account of Mr. García Luna’s ties to Mr. Beltrán Leyva.

In 2010, he testified at Mr. García Luna’s trial, he took part in the capture of one of Mr. Beltrán Leyva’s top aides, Sergio Villarreal Barragán. Hours after the arrest, Mr. Villarreal Barragán told Mr. Madrigal in a jailhouse interview that Mr. Beltrán Leyva had repeatedly bribed Mr. García Luna.

It was never revealed at the trial who else in the U.S. government learned at the time about these accusations — although in 2012, Mr. Villarreal Barragán was extradited to Texas, where he helped federal prosecutors open an early investigation of Mr. García Luna that ended without charges being filed.

That same year — Mr. García Luna’s last in office — three scandals rocked the federal police under his command, finally raising eyebrows in Washington and at the embassy in Mexico.

In February 2012, Mr. Guzmán narrowly escaped a joint U.S.-Mexican raid in Cabo San Lucas, slipping out the back door of his villa with the aid of Mexican federal officers.

Four months later, three federal police officers died in a mysterious shootout with other officers at Mexico City’s international airport. D.E.A. agents who served in Mexico at the time said in recent interviews that the violence was the result of a clash between officers who were engaged in drug trafficking and fought over profits.

Then, in August 2012, two C.I.A. officers were shot and wounded after Mexican federal officers opened fire on their vehicle. American officials conducting an investigation asked Mr. García Luna to share footage from security cameras they believed had captured the attack. Mr. García Luna initially claimed the footage did not exist, according to three officials with knowledge of the case.

Mr. García Luna was pressed about the footage at a tense meeting in Washington with top U.S. officials, including Eric Holder, the attorney general at the time, and Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, according to the three officials, two of whom were present. The F.B.I. ultimately obtained the footage from other Mexican security officers.

Episodes like these put American officials on high alert about the federal police under Mr. García Luna’s command, said Eric Drickersen, who arrived in Mexico as an F.B.I. attaché in 2013.

They also caused U.S. law-enforcement officers in Mexico to act more carefully than usual and to protect themselves and their sources within the cartels — a posture that often felt like “working with one hand tied behind your back,” Mr. Drickersen said.

“In Mexico, it’s always a game of cat and mouse,” he said. “But it’s sometimes hard to distinguish who’s the cat and who’s the mouse.”

Steve Fisher and Galia García Palafox contributed reporting.

Back to top button