The US justice has released details about the alleged criminal role of the head of the Armed Forces during the Government of Enrique Peña Nieto, between 2012 and 2018. Former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos is accused of producing and distributing drugs to the United States, in addition to other money laundering crimes between 2015 and 2017. Whoever was the highest head after the president, in charge of the country's security, has been identified as a valuable operator for one of the most violent Mexican cartels, that of the Beltrán Leyva, a spinoff of the Sinaloa Cartel based in the state of Nayarit. This is the first time in the history of Mexico that a head of the Armed Forces has been arrested. His accusation of drug trafficking is a blow to the liver of the strategies of the two previous governments in the fight against organized crime.
The arrest warrant of the US Department of Justice on Salvador Cienfuegos
The former secretary, whom justice refers to with the nickname of The Godfather, was charged and investigated since 2019 and the details have been made public this Friday. The judicial authorities assure that they have "thousands of communications" between Cienfuegos and "high command" of the cartel heir to Los Beltrán Leyva, a split from the powerful Sinaloa cartel. The document of the New York Prosecutor's Office, which is handling the case, refers to the nickname by which its leader was known, Juan Francisco Patron, alias The H2, which took control of the cartel after the arrest of its founder, Héctor Beltrán Leyva, The H, in 2014. The H2 was killed by an Army operation in 2017, under the orders of Cienfuegos.
Detained to avoid a "high risk of escape"
At a quarter to three in the afternoon in Los Angeles, the general appeared by videoconference before Judge Alexander McKenna in Los Angeles Federal Court. Cienfuegos was wearing an apparently light blue jacket and shirt. He was wearing a mask. He was in a small room with white tiles and a screen in front that made it difficult to see him clearly. He shared the video conference screen with seven other people.
The former head of the Mexican Army has answered the judge in English. He indicated once "it is correct" and six times "yes" to the formal questions, such as confirming what his name was and if the charges had been read to him in Spanish. When asked if he understood what the United States Government claims it has done, he replied: "I understand, Your Honor."
The United States Government requests that Cienfuegos remain in unconditional detention to prevent the escape. This Friday, in a preliminary hearing of just six minutes, they did not go into the substance of this question. It will be debated next Tuesday, at 1:00 p.m. local time in Los Angeles, in the same court and by videoconference, in which it is not necessary for Cienfuegos to participate in person. At that hearing, the defense plans to file a request for bail. Cienfuegos will remain in custody in Los Angeles until then. Only the first three charges can lead to a minimum penalty of 10 years in prison each, which can be increased to life in prison.
In the interventions referred to by the Prosecutor's Office, it indicates that the former minister is identified by name, surname, position, and even photo, as the person who was helping drug trafficking operations. Furthermore, the communications coincide with caches seized in the United States. "The defendant put his personal greed ahead of the obligations he swore as a public servant, since he ensured the protection and success of one of the most violent Mexican drug trafficking organizations," the letter added.
As Defense Minister (2012-2018), Cienfuegos “abused his public office to help the H2 cartel, an extremely violent Mexican drug trafficking organization, to introduce thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States. ", Assures the Brooklyn (New York) Prosecutor's Office in its request that Cienfuegos remain detained in the United States because" it presents a high risk of flight. " The prosecution document also highlights that Cienfuegos is a Mexican citizen, resides there and has practically no relationship with the United States. Before this Friday, the previous time he had crossed the border was in March 2019.
The evidence obtained by the United States Anti-Drug Agency (DEA) against Cienfuegos includes “the interception of thousands of messages from Blackberry” and reveals the extent to which the top defense official in Mexico helped the cartel's operations in exchange for bribes. Among other things, “he made sure that there were no military operations against the H2 cartel; launched operations against rival drug organizations; he was looking for maritime transport for drug shipments; carried out actions to expand the territory controlled by the cartel to Mazatlán and the rest of Sinaloa and presented the leaders of the criminal group to other government positions willing to help in exchange for bribes, "as detailed in the statement from the Prosecutor's Office. Thanks to the alleged work of Cienfuegos, the H2 cartel carried out its criminal activity in Mexico without "significant interference" from the Army, says the Prosecutor's Office. And the criminal organization was able to engage in international drug trafficking with impunity.
From his position as chief of the Armed Forces, Cienfuegos directed cooperation with the United States. According to the documents delivered to the court, he informed the cartel of the investigations being carried out by his northern neighbor and revealed who the witnesses and informants were. "This led to the assassination of a high command of the cartel that the drug traffickers mistakenly believed was helping the United States," reads the prosecutor's report.
In 2017, in a spectacular Army operation in Tepic (Nayarit), headquarters of the Beltrán Leyva cartel, El H2 He was killed along with 11 other hitmen. The Mexican authorities at the time celebrated the capture of one of the priority objectives of the Peña Nieto government, but what the New York Prosecutor's Office records is that this could be due to a maneuver to silence the kingpin.
The US Attorney's Office document insists on the high risk of Cienfuegos escaping from justice if he does not remain detained in its territory. "The defendant would likely seek to take advantage of his connections with high-level members of the H2 cartel in Mexico, as well as corrupt senior officials from the previous government to help him flee," he says in a direct attack on the weaknesses of Mexican politics.
The 72-year-old general is being investigated by the same New York court that is handling the case of Genaro García Luna, former Secretary of Security with Felipe Calderón, and who sentenced Joaquín El Chapo Guzman. And his capture represents the most important blow to the Mexican Army since the arrest of the military officer Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo in 1997 – considered the anti-drug czar of the government of former President Ernesto Zedillo – who was sentenced in 2007 to 40 years in prison for links to organized crime.
The arrest of Cienfuegos this Thursday at the Los Angeles airport represents an earthquake for Mexican politics and once again puts the state security forces in check for their possible links with organized crime. The capture in December, also in the United States, of Genaro García Luna, evidenced the first cracks through which drug trafficking was introduced in previous governments. The former Secretary of Public Security in the Calderón Administration (from 2006 to 2012) is accused of collaborating with the Sinaloa cartel during the years of the war that the then Mexican president waged against this type of crime after he came to power. Although in the last hearing last week he pleaded not guilty, the US court that is trying him indicates that he is the arm of the Government that allowed the most powerful cartel in the world to operate with total impunity in Mexico in exchange for millionaire bribes.
The new coup by the US justice reveals the fragility of the Mexican State, with two former high-ranking officials accused of drug trafficking outside its borders. Two men directly in charge of the security of Mexico during the most violent stages of the country, accused of collaborating and operating militarily with organized crime, while their governments, Calderón's and Peña Nieto's, pledged with the United States to fight harshly to the Mexican narco.