‘A Trunk Full of Secrets’: Ex-Mexican Lawman Faces Trial in Brooklyn

For more than a decade, Genaro García Luna was the square-jawed public face of Mexico’s war against its biggest criminal mafia: the Sinaloa drug cartel.

While leading the country’s version of the F.B.I., from 2001 to 2005, he personally took down top narco-traffickers like Arturo Guzmán Loera, the brother of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the infamous drug lord known as El Chapo.

Over the next six years, as Mexico’s public security secretary, he used technology and gloves-off might to capture other cartel figures. And in that cabinet-level role, Mr. García Luna helped the president at the time, Felipe Calderón, launch an aggressive battle against drug cartels that spawned a new wave of violence across the country.

But all the while, amid the headlines and acclaim from partners in Washington, Mr. García Luna was leading a double life, American prosecutors say. Despite his public image as a lawman, they maintain, he was secretly taking bribes from the same drug gang he had a reputation for pursuing.

On Tuesday, more than three years after his arrest near Dallas, Mr. García Luna will go on trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, accused of being part of a continuing criminal enterprise.

In exchange for years of graft, prosecutors say, he helped the cartel’s traffickers to safely move their products into the United States, avoid scrutiny by Mexican law enforcement and, at times, carry out brutal attacks against their rivals.

In October of 2019, the Sinaloa cartel lay siege to the city of Culiacán to secure the release of the son of the former cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as “El Chapo.”Credit…Cesar Rodriguez for The New York Times

The trial, which is expected to last eight weeks, is a kind of sequel to the El Chapo trial, a blockbuster proceeding that resulted in a conviction in 2019 in the same federal courthouse. Over the course of three months, it delved into the Sinaloa drug cartel’s astonishing logistics, its darkly violent tactics and its ever-shifting political alliances.

The García Luna trial will feature several of these aspects: As many as a dozen cartel witnesses are expected to take the stand and tell the jury that the defendant, among other things, took suitcases full of cash from Sinaloa operatives.

The trial will also be set against a bloody historical backdrop: the internecine war between Mr. Guzmán and another group of traffickers, his friends-turned-rivals, the Beltrán-Leyva brothers. The conflict claimed the lives of hundreds of people, including some of Mexico’s top police officers.

The El Chapo trial produced several revelations that landed like grenades in the United States but caused much less of a stir in Mexico.

Allegations that the country’s most notorious drug lord paid a $100 million bribe to a former Mexican president? Not front-page material for the country’s newspapers. Ten straight guilty verdicts for Mr. Guzmán? The country collectively shrugged.

Mexicans, who were intimately familiar with the grotesque violence inflicted by the nation’s crime bosses, didn’t seem surprised by the horrible things El Chapo was said to have done.

But the trial of Mr. García Luna is expected to have a more far-reaching impact. He is the highest-ranking Mexican official ever to stand trial in an American courtroom, and his indictment in December 2019 managed to shock a country where corruption is seen as a fact of life. Suddenly, the man most associated with kneecapping drug cartels was accused of colluding with one all along.

Mr. García Luna with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009. Credit…Daniel Aguilar/Reuters

Since then, Mexico’s former top law enforcement official has become a symbol of the nation’s broken police force, used by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president, to justify his growing reliance on the military to combat cartel violence.

The case against Mr. García Luna could further implicate two former top-ranking police officials who were charged with him but remain in Mexico: Luis Cárdenas Palomino and Ramón Pequeño García.

It could also have profound consequences for the opposition in the run up to a crucial presidential election in 2024, possibly harming the conservative National Action Party that Mr. García Luna served.

“If they are able to forcefully and clearly prove his association with an important criminal organization, it would be a huge blow to the opposition,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexico City security analyst.

Unlike the El Chapo trial, Mr. Guerrero said, this case could genuinely surprise Mexicans by uncovering the inner workings of a corrupt system almost everyone believes exists, but few have seen up close.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador disbanded the Federal Police, which Mr. García Luna once led. Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

“The García Luna case is like a trunk full of secrets that could be made public,” Mr. Guerrero said. “It seems like we’re going to learn a lot of things we had no idea about.”

Among those most anxious to learn the details of the investigation, it seems, is Mexico’s president. Mr. López Obrador has repeatedly stressed how crucial it is for the media to closely cover the case and for the public to learn about it. He even had his foreign minister explain, in a recent news conference, the process of jury selection in the trial.

“It is very important that all this is known, that it be reported on, so that it does not happen again,” the president said this month.

After taking office in 2018, Mr. López Obrador disbanded the Federal Police, which Mr. García Luna had once led. He replaced that force with the National Guard, which was recently put under the command of the military.

“I don’t want the National Guard to end up like the Federal Police, that was under the control of people like García Luna,” Mr. López Obrador said at a news conference in September. “That federal police became rotten.”

Mr. García Luna heads to trial slightly more than two years after a failed attempt by federal prosecutors from the same Brooklyn office to bring a corruption case against another important Mexican official: Salvador Cienfuegos, the country’s onetime defense minister. Mr. Cienfuegos was arrested at the Los Angeles airport in late 2020 on a sealed indictment accusing him of taking lucrative payouts from the H-2 cartel, a violent offshoot of the organization run by the Beltrán-Leyva brothers.

But after pressure from Mexico, U.S. prosecutors dropped the charges, citing diplomatic concerns, and returned Mr. Cienfuegos to his homeland, where he was ultimately allowed to resume a normal life. The debacle effectively ended the desire and ability of American law enforcement to investigate corruption allegations in Mexico, including some against targets even more significant than Mr. Cienfuegos.

Salvador Cienfuegos, Mexico’s defense minister in 2016.Credit…Marco Ugarte/Associated Press

In making their case against Mr. García Luna, prosecutors plan to argue that he used his power not only to assist the cartel, but also to cover up his own wrongdoing. He funneled money from “a corrupt kickback scheme,” court papers say, to journalists at a Mexican news organization to stop them from “publishing negative stories about him.” He subjected one reporter in particular — believed to be Anabel Hernández — to “a multiyear campaign of harassment and threats,” the papers say, because of her work investigating him.

Prosecutors claim that Mr. García Luna continued committing crimes even after he moved in 2012 to Miami, where he opened a security consulting business that employed many of the same contacts he had made in law enforcement and intelligence circles in both countries.

In Miami, court papers say, he befriended members of a wealthy Mexican family, the Weinbergs, who ran their own array of security companies and provided him with access to “a multimillion-dollar home and yacht.”

César de Castro, Mr. García Luna’s lawyer, plans to argue that his client has always been a legitimate lawman and that the government’s cartel witnesses have leveled false corruption allegations against him as a belated form of revenge.

The defense also intends to attack the bribery claims by arguing that Mr. García Luna did not arrive in the United States with riches and that whatever trappings of luxury he ultimately had he either paid for on his own or received from the Weinbergs.

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