Mexico Stunned by Ex-Defense Chief's Arrest in Los Angeles

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Mexico's Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda
FILE - In this April 16, 2016, file photo, Mexico's Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda speaks to soldiers at the Number 1 military camp in Mexico City. Cienfuegos said Thursday, Dec. 8, that the army is uncomfortable with the law-enforcement role it was given a decade ago when the government launched an offensive against drug cartels. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

MEXICO CITY – He was the stern-faced chief of Mexico's armed forces, leading the battle against the nation's powerful drug cartels.

In 2016, he denounced the traffickers who ambushed a military convoy, killing six soldiers, as "sick, insane beasts."

Former Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos – who served as Mexico's defense minister from 2012 to 2018 under ex-President Enrique Pena Nieto – was arrested late Thursday in Los Angeles.

In a Twitter message Friday morning, Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican foreign minister, said Cienfuegos faced five charges related to narcotics trafficking and would be transferred to New York.

As of early Friday, there was no official confirmation from U.S. authorities of any charges against Cienfuegos. U.S. and Mexican media reported that Cienfuegos was arrested at LAX on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warrant for drug-trafficking and money-laundering.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – who confirmed that the ex-general was detained on suspicion of drug-trafficking – told reporters Friday morning that he had no official knowledge of the U.S. investigation until informed late Thursday of the arrest. There was no investigation of Cienfuegos in Mexico, Lopez Obrador said.

The Mexican ambassador in Washington informed him two weeks ago that there was talk of a U.S. inquiry into the former defense chief, Lopez Obrador added, but there had been no official notification.

The news stunned Mexico, where for many it served as the latest confirmation of the insidious nexus between a long-corrupt government and the criminal gangs that hold sway over much of the country.

"It is something very regrettable, that an ex-secretary of defense be arrested (and) accused of links to narco-trafficking," said Lopez Obrador, who was elected in a landslide vote in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform.

The arrest, the president said, was an example of the "decomposition" of government before he came to power. He said that the case did not taint the current military leadership, which he appointed, and that current military chiefs were honest public servants.

U.S. officials were expected to release more details of the case later Friday.

Cienfuegos' arrest came as another former high-ranking Mexican official, Genaro Garcia Luna, faces drug trafficking charges in U.S. District Court in New York. He served as security chief in the administration of former President Felipe Calderon.

It was not immediately clear whether the two cases were connected.

The two U.S. prosecutions of former Cabinet-level security chiefs point to links to drug gangs in the highest echelons of two presidential administrations that ran Mexico for a dozen years.

Lopez Obrador has cited the case of Garcia Luna in describing Mexico as a "narco-state" under Calderon, who served from 2006-12.

The detention of Cienfuegos immediately caused a sensation in the Mexican press and on social media, as analysts and others speculated about why he was taken into custody.

Cienfuegos, 72, who spent more than 50 years in the Mexican military before retiring in 2018, was regarded as a firm commander who seldom spoke publicly. He did, however, express public reservations about the military's controversial role in law enforcement, a role that has grown substantially in recent years.

Authorities here have increasingly relied on the military in the battle against drug gangs in lieu of police, who are widely viewed as corrupt – and, in many cases, on the payrolls of drug traffickers. Lopez Obrador has broadened the military's role in many areas, including fighting drug gangs and deterring U.S.-bound migrants from transiting through Mexican territory.

Since being dispatched to the front lines of the anti-drug battle more than a decade ago, military personnel have been implicated in cases of torture, killings, disappearances and other crimes. Yet polls show that the military remains among the country's most trusted institutions. That is in part because of its humanitarian work: Mexican troops regularly respond to floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Marring Cienfuegos' tenure in office were two notorious cases: the slayings by Mexican soldiers of at least a dozen civilians in the town of Tlatlaya, outside Mexico City, in June 2014, and the abduction and murder of 43 trainee teachers seized in Guerrero state the following September. Human rights activists accused the military of misconduct in both cases.

But courts threw out charges against seven soldiers charged in the Tlatlaya case, and the military denied culpability in the disappearance of the trainee teachers.

The ongoing case of Garcia Luna became public when he was arrested in Texas in 2019. Garcia Luna has denied charges of taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who is now serving a life sentence in U.S. prison.

The case of Cienfuegos recalled a scandal from more than two decades ago, when Mexico's then-drug enforcement czar, Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested in 1997 and later convicted of working for a drug cartel that he was tasked to fight. Gutierrez Rebollo died in 2013 while serving a 40-year prison term in Mexico.

This article is written by Patrick J. McDonnell from The Los Angeles Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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