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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Mexico’s ex-top security official is convicted of cartel bribery

Genaro García Luna in 2004, when he headed Mexico’s version of the F.B.I.

By Alan Feuer and Nate Schweber

Genaro García Luna, once the architect and public face of Mexico’s bloody war on its powerful criminal groups, was convicted Tuesday in a New York courtroom of betraying his country and colleagues by taking millions of dollars in bribes from the violent drug cartels he was meant to be pursuing.

The guilty verdict, which came after three days of deliberation in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, represented a stunning downfall for García Luna, a jut-jawed former law-enforcement officer who was so enmeshed in his country’s security establishment that he was often described as the J. Edgar Hoover of Mexico.

As Judge Brian M. Cogan read the verdict, García Luna sat still and stony with his lawyers. His wife and daughter, behind him in the courtroom, were equally emotionless.

The jury reached its decision after hearing testimony from a half-dozen seasoned narco-traffickers. Jurors determined that García Luna had led a double life and was secretly on the payroll of Mexico’s biggest crime group, the Sinaloa drug cartel, nearly the entire time he ran the country’s equivalent of the FBI and then served as its public security secretary, a powerful Cabinet-level post.

Mexicans have long suspected that government officials at the highest levels of power have been in league with the very gangsters who for decades have inflicted pain and suffering on their country, which despite billions of dollars and decades of efforts by law enforcement has reached new levels of violence in recent years.

And for many in Mexico, it is hard to overstate the cathartic spectacle of a man like García Luna being found guilty of taking part in what is known as a continuing criminal enterprise — a count for which he now faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life.

The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was quick to seize on news of the verdict, having used the trial for weeks as a political cudgel against the opposition party, which García Luna served for more than a decade while working under former President Felipe Calderón.

Jesús Ramírez Cuevas, a spokesperson for López Obrador, tweeted a barb aimed at Calderón, whom López Obrador has repeatedly accused of corruption.

“García Luna is convicted of drug trafficking, organized crime and false statements in the U.S.,” Ramírez wrote. “Justice has arrived for the former squire of Felipe Calderón. The crimes against our people will never be forgotten.”

In the United States, the conviction was celebrated as a signal victory by federal prosecutors who filed the charges against García Luna in late 2019, after years of whispers, rumors and aborted investigations into his ties with traffickers.

“García Luna, who once stood at the pinnacle of law enforcement in Mexico, will now live the rest of his days having been revealed as a traitor to his country and to the honest members of law enforcement who risked their lives to dismantle drug cartels,” Breon Peace, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said in a statement.

Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Cesar de Castro, García Luna’s lead lawyer, said he was disappointed by the verdict.

“After many years of trying to build a case against García Luna with credible and reliable evidence, the government was forced to settle for a case built on the backs of some of the most notorious and ruthless criminals to testify in this courthouse,” de Castro said.

Traditionally, American counternarcotics cases have been brought against cartel kingpins such as Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo, who was convicted in the same Brooklyn courthouse in 2019 of running a vast criminal empire.

But the guilty verdict against García Luna struck a blow against the systemic corruption in Mexico that has long abetted both the gothic bloodshed of the drug trade and the flow of illegal drugs across the border.

From the start, the government’s case against García Luna was something less than ironclad, lacking the vast trove of intercepted text messages and recorded conversations it used to secure the conviction of Guzmán.

Prosecutors based their presentation against García Luna almost entirely on the testimony of cartel operatives who told the jury both about their own crimes and about how the defendant had long taken bribes from the Sinaloa cartel.

The government’s first witness was Sergio Villarreal Barragán, a hulking former police officer known as El Grande, who last month told the jury that in the early 2000s, García Luna showed up at a warehouse in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas to claim his cut of a drug deal: more than $14 million in cash.

The last witness prosecutors called was Jesus Zambada García, the brother of Guzmán’s longtime business partner, Ismael Zambada García. Echoing what he said during Guzmán’s trial, Zambada testified that he personally packed millions of dollars into two sports bags that were given to García Luna in the Champs Elysées restaurant in Mexico City shortly after he became the country’s public security secretary.

Even though evidence about graft was central to the prosecution’s case, the jury’s verdict sheets never mentioned words such as “bribery” or “corruption.” Technically, the panel convicted García Luna of drug trafficking conspiracy and the criminal enterprise charge.

For all of the details that the trial revealed about the Mexican drug trade — gory murders, descriptions of huge drug shipments and a reference to a white cat named Cocaine — one subject rarely came up: What American officials knew about García Luna’s ties to the cartel at a time when he worked closely with U.S. law enforcement officers in Mexico and met with top political figures such as former Attorney General Eric Holder and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the onetime secretary of state.

The trial raised some tantalizing — but inconclusive — questions about other top officials in Mexico, including Calderón and López Obrador, the current president.

Edgar Veytia, a former attorney general from the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, testified on Feb. 7 that the governor of Nayarit had once told him about attending a meeting with Calderón and García Luna where both men instructed him to help El Chapo in an internecine battle against rivals in his cartel. Calderón immediately posted an angry message on Twitter, denying the “absurd statements” by Veytia.

A week later, García Luna’s lawyer asked Zambada if he had once paid a $7 million bribe to a close aide to López Obrador during a presidential campaign — an allegation that Zambada denied, contradicting his own testimony in the Guzmán trial. But the denial could have been based on a confusing question resulting from a minor error in the notes from Zambada’s interviews with U.S. prosecutors.

Even though prosecutors successfully convicted García Luna, the victory is unlikely to lead to corruption cases against other high-ranking Mexican officials. The reluctance of the U.S. government to bring such matters to trial is largely because of the fallout from the collapse of another Brooklyn-based corruption case against Salvador Cienfuegos, a former Mexican defense minister.

In late 2020, Cienfuegos was arrested at the Los Angeles airport on a sealed indictment accusing him of having taken bribes from a violent drug organization called the H-2 cartel. But after intense pressure from Mexico, the case was dismissed and Cienfuegos was sent back to his homeland where he returned to normal life.

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