LOS ANGELES – Mexico’s former defence secretary helped smuggle thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States in exchange for bribes, according to court documents unsealed Friday.
Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, 72, acted on behalf of the H-2 cartel while defence secretary from 2012 to 2018 under former President Enrique Pena Nieto, authorities said.
Thousands of intercepted Blackberry messages show the general ensured military operations were not conducted against the cartel and that operations were initiated against rivals, according to prosecutors. Cienfuegos allegedly introduced cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.
Cienfuegos is accused of alerting cartel leaders to a U.S. law enforcement investigation into its operations and the use of co-operating witnesses and informants, which resulted in the murder of a member of the cartel that leaders incorrectly believed was assisting U.S. law enforcement authorities.
Intercepted communications between Cienfuegos and a senior cartel leader discussed the general’s 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.
Cienfuegos was indicted by a grand jury in the Eastern District of New York on Aug. 14, 2019.
Cienfuegos was scheduled to make an initial appearance later Friday in federal court in Los Angeles, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said. His lawyer was to travelling LA from Mexico.
Cienfuegos, 72, was expected to be transferred to New York, where his case is being handled.
The defence secretary post positioned Cienfuegos as a critical figure in efforts by Mexico and its allies to combat drug trafficking.
He was arrested Thursday upon arrival at Los Angeles International Airport. A senior Mexican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to give details of the case, said Cienfuegos was arrested with family members who were released and he was taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center.
Cienfuegos is the highest-ranking former Cabinet official arrested since top Mexican security official Genaro Garcia Luna was taken in to custody in Texas in 2019. Garcia Luna, who served under former President Felipe Calderón, has pleaded not guilty to drug trafficking charges.
The arrest of Cienfuego is a tough blow for Mexico, where the army and navy are some of the few remaining respected public institutions.
Current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has vowed to go after corruption and lawbreaking under past administrations, but he has relied more heavily on the army — and given it more tasks, ranging from building infrastructure projects to distributing medical supplies — than any other president in recent history.
This story has been corrected to say Cienfuegos is Mexico’s former defence secretary, not foreign defence secretary.