Former Mexican Defense Minister Arrested In U.S. On Drug Trafficking Charges

Published: Friday, October 16, 2020 - 3:51pm
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Mexico’s former defense secretary was arrested in Los Angeles on Thursday on four charges of drug trafficking and money laundering.

Retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos is the latest high-ranking Mexican official accused of working with the criminal organizations he should have been fighting.

Lat December, Genero Garcia Luna, former public security secretary during the administration of President Felipe Calderón, was arrested in Texas and faces accusations of allowing cocaine shipments to the US. He is currently awaiting trial in New York. Two of his top lieutenants in the federal police were also indicted in New York on accusations that allowed the Sinaloa Cartel to operate with impunity in Mexico in exchange for bribes.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called the arrests of Luna and Cienfuegos an "unprecedented situation," and proof of corruption under previous administrations. He called corruption Mexico's biggest problem, responsible for decades of "economic inequality, poverty, insecurity and violence," and promised that anyone serving in his administration who is implicated in the case of Cienfuegos will be suspended, retired and investigated.

“We’re not going to cover up for anyone," he said during his morning press conference Friday. "That time is over.”

But López Obrador also doubled down on his support for current military leaders, calling them “incorruptible.”

“I also want to say that I am absolutely convinced that Mexico’s Armed Forces are a fundamental institution, in this case both the Secretary of Defense and the Navy, to the development of our country. They are pillars of the Mexican state," he said. "They are strong enough that not even these unfortunate matters, such as the involvement of the Secretary of Defense in cases of drug trafficking, can weaken them.”

However, Cecilia Farfán, head of security research programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego, said Cienfuegos’ arrest should cast doubt on Lopez Obrador’s growing reliance on the military.

"An arrest like this really calls into question whether militarization and support is really the best approach," she said, adding that a military approach to drug control policy has been shown to be ineffective for a long time.

López Obrador has been critical of a military-led war on drugs, which has contributed to soaring violence in Mexico. Yet, his administration has turned to armed forces repeatedly for security — including installing military leaders at the helm of several local police forces in Sonora as part of a “pilot program” to address the state’s growing violence — as well as for other tasks, including building a new airport in Mexico City.

"I think precisely because his administration has given more tasks and money to the military, with this arrest, it’s a complicated position," Farfán said.

Cienfuegos, who served as defense secretary from 2012-2018 under President Enrique Pena Nieto, was scheduled to appear at a hearing Friday afternoon. He is facing four charges related to money laundering and the manufacture and distribution of heroin, cocaine and other illegal drugs in the United States, according to an indictment by prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York released Friday.

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