Mexico’s former top cop on trial in New York on drug charges

Just days after the trial of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a witness made a surprising claim: An associate of the Sinaloa Cartel testified that he personally handed large bags to a drug cop in Mexico filled with money — millions in bribes to allow the cartel to operate with impunity.

Now, the man who was considered an architect of Mexico’s fight against drugs and a key accomplice to US law enforcement will go on trial Tuesday in the same federal court in New York. Gennaro García Luna — head of the Mexican version of the FBI from 2001 to 2006 and minister of public security from 2006 to 2012 — is accused of conspiring with criminals he ostensibly intended to eliminate.

García Luna, 54, who was arrested in December 2019, is the highest-ranking Mexican official to face trial in the United States on drug trafficking charges — four counts of conspiracy to traffic cocaine. It’s as if the head of the FBI or DEA had been accused of taking millions in drug money.

García Luna frequently met with top US security officials while in office, and was often portrayed as the public face of Mexico’s drug war. But prosecutors say they plan to prove that the former Mexican cop provided safe passage to the cartel for drug shipments and sensitive information about investigations into gangs or rival gangs.

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

Soriano said, “We learned that Chapo is dirty, but Chapo is nothing but a peasant from the Sinaloa countryside.” By contrast, García Luna was a powerful public official who earned the confidence of Mexico’s president from 2006 to 2012, Felipe Calderón, who rallied the military and federal police in a bloody, more than decade-long battle against drug cartels.

“It has the potential to unveil one of the key aspects of the so-called war on drugs here in Mexico,” Soriano said, “which is the links, the connections, the relationship between political power and the so-called drug cartels.”

A jury selection is expected early this week, with opening statements in a Brooklyn courthouse soon.

Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón speaks to the press in 2010 while Genaro García Luna, then Minister of Security, stands behind him.

(Alexander Meneghini / Associated Press)

Trial bets

The testimony and evidence that can emerge at trial can have far-reaching consequences on both sides of the border.

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

The disclosure of the trial may have been a huge stain on previous administrations in Mexico. For critics of the drug war, a condemnation would underscore the failure of the joint effort between the United States and Mexico, which has received billions of dollars in American aid and been blamed for tens of thousands of deaths — but has done little to reduce gang violence or trafficking.

“The cooperation did not lead to the dismantling of drug trafficking networks,” Correa Cabrera said. “Today, the United States consumes more drugs than ever before, and across borders more drugs enter the United States than ever before.”

The trial may put additional pressure on declining security cooperation between the two countries. Correa Cabrera said that during the Calderón years, US security agencies had a free pass to go anywhere they wanted in Mexico.

Agencies entered the kitchen,” Correa-Cabrera said, using a Mexican expression that translates as “the agencies have access to the kitchen.” She noted that the current Mexican administration has shifted toward more limited cooperation with US security agencies on Mexican soil.

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

Who is Garcia Luna?

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

García Luna began his career at the National Intelligence Center, the Mexican equivalent of the CIA, in 1989 and joined a special counter-terrorism unit. After nearly a decade, he joined the Federal Police, and in 2001, then-President Vicente Fox named him head of the new Federal Investigation Agency.

At the agency, known as AFI, which has since been disbanded, García Luna led what was hailed as a transformation of Mexico’s police force.

In a series of interviews Correa-Cabrera gave García Luna in 2017 and 2018, he said that the Federal Judicial Police had links to drug trafficking and that he had been given the responsibility of cleaning it up.

“The AFI was the promise of better policing, policing not linked to drug trafficking,” she said.

The Mexican government at the time likened the new agency to the FBI. When Calderón assumed the presidency in 2006, he promoted García Luna to his cabinet.

A man speaks on a platform in front of a picture of a helicopter.

Gennaro García Luna speaks during the 2011 Gala in Mexico City.

(Alexander Meneghini / Associated Press)

Rumors and cold tracks

Shortly after Fox took power in 2000, the government arrested several members of the Sinaloa Cartel. But after that initial race, things calmed down. Opposition politicians and security experts are beginning to question why the government’s hunt for elusive cartel leader El Chapo failed.

Calderon’s declared war on drug cartels shattered old alliances and sent drug lords fighting over the region. There were high-profile arrests, but they were mostly from rival organizations such as the Zetas or Beltrán Leyva’s organization. Rumors grew of the government’s favoritism of the Sinaloa Federation.

During the height of the drug wars in 2008, Mexicans in several states woke up to signs or narcomantas Hanging from bridges or strewn across the doorway of a cathedral, García Luna has been accused of protecting drug dealers.

One of the most controversial claims appeared in a letter published in November 2012 in the pages of the famous national newspaper Reforma. Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villareal, a Beltrán Leyva drug lord, a writer from prison, has accused García Luna and his closest associates of receiving drug money since 2002.

“I can testify that he received money from me, from drug trafficking and organized crime groups,” Valdez said, before adding, “I could be guilty of a lot, but they, the officials, are part of the criminal structure of this state.”

Officials said the charges were an attempt by Valdez to obtain favors while he was in prison. García Luna remained the same. (A US judge sentenced Valdez in 2018 to 49 years in prison.)

Garcia Luna lives in Miami

When Calderon’s tenure ended in 2012, García Luna fell out of the public eye. Married with two children, he obtained permanent residence in the United States and soon became a routine guest at conferences hosted by American universities.

He started a private security consulting and risk management firm with offices in Miami and Mexico City. Among his clients were foreign governments and corporations, his defense said in pre-trial files, and his primary client was the Mexican government.

In 2018, he applied for US citizenship. Prior to his arrest in Miami, he lived in a waterside mansion “with a dock and a boat for his use,” all given to him by his business associates because he “had no wealth to speak of at the time,” García Luna’s defense wrote in the court filing.

“Because his business partners wanted to ensure Mr. García Luna’s continued involvement in their business, they provided him with a place to live in Miami,” the defense wrote.

to brooklyn

It seems unlikely that the trial of Garcia Luna – which is expected to last two months – will be as dramatic as that of Guzmán, who became famous around the world as an escape artist who eluded arrest for so long.

But prosecutors have cabled in court filings that they expect to produce several witnesses — including high-ranking former members of the Sinaloa cartel — to testify about the bribes Garcia Luna is accused of accepting.

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

The documents in the case are huge. García Luna’s public defender, who was appointed by the court after the defendant’s assets were confiscated, complained in initial court appearances about having to review “millions of pages” of evidence with little support.

If convicted, García Luna could face a minimum of 20 years in prison and a maximum of life.

Another arrest, at LAX

Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador has described the case against García Luna as a symbol of the institutional corruption of his predecessors, especially Calderón, a longtime political opponent.

However, López Obrador was furious when, a year after the arrest of García Luna in Dallas, the former Mexican Minister of Defense, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, was detained by US authorities moments after he landed with his family at Los Angeles International Airport.

Like García Luna, Cienfuegos has been accused of collaborating with Mexican drug cartels while in office.

López Obrador, facing a backlash from the powerful military, denounced the charges against Cienfuegos and demanded that Washington release the retired general. The Trump administration eventually dropped the charges and sent Cienfuegos back to Mexico, where he was released.

In Mexico, López Obrador—who once railed against deploying the military against drug cartels—has come under fire for greatly expanding the military’s role in homeland 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.

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