U.S. Arrests Mexico’s Former Top Defense Official For Using His Office To Assist Drug Cartel, Reports Say

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 16 : President of Mexico Enrique Pena Nieto (R) and Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda watch the annual military parade at Zocalo main square, in Mexico City, Mexico on September 16, 2016. Mexico is marking the 206th anniversary of its independence.
Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Federal law enforcement officials arrested General Salvador Cienfuegos, Mexico’s former defense minister, late on Thursday night for allegedly using his office and military power to assist a drug cartel that poured massive quantities of illicit narcotics into U.S. cities.

Authorities made the arrest immediately after Cienfuegos, 72, landed at Los Angeles International Airport. It is unclear why he had traveled to the U.S. or felt no risk in stepping onto U.S. soil.

“I always said that it wasn’t just a crisis, but a decadence that we were suffering from,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said. “It’s regrettable that a former defense minister is detained, accused of ties to drug trafficking.”

Cienfuegos served as defense minister from 2012 to 2018 in the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has also been linked to drug trafficking. The New York Times reported last year that Nieto “took a $100 million bribe from Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the infamous crime lord known as El Chapo, according to a witness at Mr. Guzman’s trial.”

Cienfuegos abused his “public position to help the H-2 Cartel, an extremely violent Mexican drug trafficking organization, traffic thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States, including New York City,” prosecutors said. “In exchange for bribe payments, he permitted the H-2 Cartel—a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder—to operate with impunity in Mexico.”

Prosecutors highlighted the following alleged evidence that they collected on Cienfuegos:

Evidence obtained by law enforcement officials, including the interception of thousands of Blackberry Messenger communications, has revealed that, while he was the Secretary of National Defense in Mexico, the defendant, in exchange for bribe payments, assisted the H-2 Cartel in numerous ways, including by: (i) ensuring that military operations were not conducted against the H-2 Cartel; (ii) initiating military operations against its rival drug trafficking organizations; (iii) locating maritime transportation for drug shipments; (iv) acting to expand the territory controlled by the H-2 Cartel to Mazatlán and the rest of Sinaloa; (v) introducing senior leaders of the H-2 Cartel to other corrupt Mexican government officials willing to assist in exchange for bribes; and (vi) warning the H-2 Cartel about the ongoing U.S. law enforcement investigation into the H-2 Cartel and its use of cooperating witnesses and informants—which ultimately resulted in the murder of a member of the H-2 Cartel that the H-2 Cartel senior leadership incorrectly believed was assisting U.S. law enforcement authorities.

Among the many communications captured during the course of this investigation are numerous direct communications between the defendant and a senior leader of the H-2 Cartel, including communications in which the defendant discussed his historical assistance to another drug trafficking organization, as well as communications in which the defendant is identified by name, title and photograph as the Mexican government official assisting the H-2 Cartel. Due in part to the defendant’s corrupt assistance, the H-2 Cartel conducted its criminal activity in Mexico without significant interference from the Mexican military and imported thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana into the United States.

These thousands of intercepted communications amongst the members of the H-2 Cartel are corroborated by numerous drug seizures of hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, as well as the seizure of hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug proceeds in the United States. In addition, witnesses have provided a wealth of information to the government about the operations of the H-2 Cartel, its regular employment of violence to further its drug trafficking, its use of bribery to ensure government protection, as well as the assistance of the defendant to the H-2 Cartel and other drug trafficking organizations.

Prosecutors added that Cienfuegos “prioritized his personal greed over his sworn duties as a public servant, and he assured the continued success and safety of one of Mexico’s most violent drug trafficking organizations.”

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