Former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda Arrested by U.S. Officials

10/19/20 (written by rkuckertz) – In a move that shocked Mexican citizens and officials alike, U.S. authorities arrested former Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda on Thursday, October 15 just after he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport with his family. He was taken into custody after U.S. officials indicted him on various drug trafficking-related counts, including conspiracy to import and distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana. The arrest sent shockwaves through Mexico, as Cienfuegos (also known as “El Padrino”) is the first high-ranking Mexican military official to be arrested in the United States in connection with drug trafficking and organized crime.

General Cienfuegos was a member of Mexico’s armed forces for 54 years and served as Mexico’s defense minister under President Enrique Peña Nieto from December 1, 2012 to November 30, 2018. Throughout his tenure as head of the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA), he was tasked with the military’s fight against organized crime. During this time, Cienfuegos defended military personnel against accusations of human rights violations, particularly in the widely-publicized extrajudicial killings in Tlatlaya and Iguala (2014). Notably, the former defense minister repeatedly refused to allow investigators to interview soldiers involved in these massacres. Nonetheless, he was thought by the public to be committed to the fight against organized crime. As the Los Angeles Times reports, he once denounced drug traffickers who attacked military personnel as “sick, insane beasts.”

Charges and Evidence against Cienfuegos

The charges against Cienfuegos were brought before a Brooklyn grand jury on August 14, 2019, on which day U.S. Magistrate Judge Vera M. Scanlon issued an arrest warrant. On Friday, Cienfuegos appeared before a court by videoconference to hear the charges against him: three charges of conspiracy to manufacture, import, and distribute narcotics and one count of money laundering. He is currently being held without bail in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, California as he awaits his next court appearance on Tuesday, October 20. Notably, Cienfuegos obtained legal representation from defense attorney Duane Lyons—the same attorney representing Mexico’s former Secretary of Public Security, Genaro García Luna, who was also arrested last year by U.S. officials in connection with drug trafficking.

Specific evidence obtained against Cienfuegos includes thousands of Blackberry messages exchanged between the former defense minister and members of the H-2 cartel, a successor organization to the Beltran Leyva cartel. The messages directly implicate Cienfuegos in assisting H-2 with its criminal operations, including facilitating drug shipments across the U.S.-Mexico border and introducing H-2 members to Mexican officials willing to receive bribes in exchange for cooperation with criminal actors. In addition, Cienfuegos allegedly informed H-2 members of ongoing U.S. law enforcement investigations into the organized crime group (OCG). As a result, H-2 was able to expand its operations throughout the state of Sinaloa with little inference from Mexico’s military.

Mexico’s Response

Mexican officials were not made aware of U.S. plans to charge Cienfuegos until after his arrest. In response to the news, President Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) stressed that the Mexican government had not investigated Cienfuegos because it was not made aware of any evidence or complaints against the former defense minister. Nonetheless, López Obrador warned that anyone involved in the case against Cienfuegos that currently serves in the Mexican government or in SEDENA would be immediately removed and placed in the hands of authorities. The president also noted that Cienfuegos is the second high-ranking Mexican security official to be arrested in the United States since last year when Genaro García Luna was arrested on similar charges in Dallas, Texas. López Obrador characterized these arrests as evidence of rampant corruption under former President Enrique Peña Nieto.

However, President López Obrador emphasized a stark contrast between his predecessors and his own administration. He defended both SEDENA and the Mexican navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR) as institutions that have assisted the government in the crucial task of ensuring Mexico’s public security. As AMLO stated, “[SEDENA and SEMAR] are institutions fundamental to the development of our country, pillars of the state, and they are so strong that not even matters such as the involvement of a secretary of defense in cases of drug trafficking can weaken them” [author’s translation].

Most recently, AMLO has attempted to separate his own administration from the corruption of past administrations by introducing a referendum to the Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de México, SCJN) that would allow former presidents to be charged for criminal conduct committed while in office. Approved by the court, the referendum will be put before the public for a vote in June 2021.

The Role of Mexico’s Military in the Fight Against Organized Crime

Despite AMLO’s reassurances, Cienfuegos’ arrest comes at a time when Mexican civil society groups and international organizations express grave concern regarding the expanding role of Mexico’s military in security operations.

This trend toward militarization of public security operations began prior to President López Obrador’s term. In 2017, Mexico passed a law affirming the military’s role in the fight against organized crime. Condemned by the United Nations and various human rights organizations, the law allowed Mexico to deploy soldiers to regions under the control of OCGs. Critics argued that the bill gave broad powers to the military that superseded the Mexican Constitution. In their view, the bill allowed the president to act unilaterally, militarizing any part of the country without clear limits or an exit strategy.

Under the current administration, AMLO has continued the expansion of militarized operations. As a cornerstone of his anti-corruption platform, López Obrador sought to overhaul the federal policing system, replacing it with the National Guard (Guardia Nacional). This new security institution recruited over 100,000 troops from both the military and former Federal Police. In AMLO’s view, the National Guard would be incorruptible and significantly more effective in counter-OCG operations. However, after a year of operation, skeptics continue to warn that the use of military-like tactics will cause human rights violations to continue unchecked.

In addition, Reforma points out that individuals directly connected to the former defense minister Cienfuegos continue to operate within Mexico’s security apparatus. In particular, General André Foullon, who serves as SEDENA’s sub-secretary and was considered to be part of Cienfuegos’ inner circle, previously commanded the third region (Tercera Región) consisting of the state of Sinaloa—the same region where Cienfuegos allegedly protected the H-2 cartel. Reforma identified several other current military officials who had close ties to Cienfuegos—individuals that U.S. officials believed would have assisted Cienfuegos in evading authorities if he were released.

While it remains to be seen whether other SEDENA officials will be implicated in Cienfuegos’ crimes, recent data demonstrate that the Mexican public holds a generally-favorable view of the military. In 2017, a Parametría poll showed that six of every ten Mexicans agreed that the military should continue to operate throughout Mexico in response to organized crime. The poll also found that the public viewed the military as one of the country’s most trusted institutions. However, given increasing criticism and the news of Cienfuegos’ arrest, it remains to be seen whether Mexico will continue to entrust its military institutions with the fight against organized crime.


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Normalista families launch Caravana 43 through the United States and Europe

Caravana 43 demonstrated in San Diego on March 23. Photo: Carmelita Salazar-Dodge, Justice in Mexico.

Caravana 43 demonstrated in San Diego on March 23. Photo: Intern, Justice in Mexico.

04/19/15 — The family members of the 43 Normalista students that disappeared in September 2014 from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, are currently touring the United States in an effort to raise awareness about their ongoing fight to demand answers from the Mexican government and hold accountable those responsible. Appropriately named, Caravana 43 is stopping in 43 U.S. cities to discuss the human rights violations committed by local police and the Iguala-based cartel Guerreros Unidos. The families are conveying their grievances and demands for reform to Mexican and U.S. institutions, international organizations, Plan Mérida, and the U.S. Latino/Latina community, as well as calls for increased U.S. funding to fight drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico. According to investigators, the young Normalista students were murdered and incinerated in a dumpster. However, their family members continue to seek alternative answers regarding the whereabouts of their children, as only one student’s remains have been discovered.

Caravana 43 launched on March 16 from three different starting points in Texas—San Antonio, McAllen, and El Paso—splitting into three routes to canvas the United States, including a stop in San Diego on March 23. A Justice in Mexico Intern spoke with Caravana 43 organizer Luis López Resendiz at the San Diego demonstration. López Resendiz, who sits on the Caravana’s Media and Communications Committee, emphasized the importance of the Caravan’s protests and demonstrations, stating, “No student should become a criminal for developing a critical mind. I just hope one day we don’t fight for justice; I hope one day to win every single fight [so we can] live in paz (peace).”

Caravana 43 in San Diego, CA on March 23. Photo: Carmelita Salazar-Dodge, Justice in Mexico

Caravana 43 in San Diego, CA on March 23. Photo: Intern, Justice in Mexico

Meanwhile, in an interview with Mexican media news source Univisión, Former Mexican President Vicente Fox addressed the Normalista parents: “You cannot live forever with this problem on your minds, life goes on. It’s a good thing that you care so much for your children, it’s good that you miss them and [that you] are in mourning, but you have to accept reality. The country has to keep walking.” Fox’s comment drew fire, however, from Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), an outspoken politician, former presidential contender, and leader of the National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, Morena). AMLO called the statements “disrespectful to the students,” and called Fox’s political allegiances and motives into question, saying that Fox “never had convictions for the people of Mexico.”

The three caravan routes will reconvene in New York City in late April, and from there continue abroad to seek the support of other nations in Europe to advocate for the return of the missing students. They plan to first stop in Oslo, Norway, where they’ll visit the University of Innsbruck. That university was involved in the investigation and analysis of human remains found in Cocula, Guerroro thought to be the students. The results, however, turned out negative. Caravana 43 then plans to tour Switzerland, Finland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Holland, and England, where they will organize rallies in front of embassies and consulates of the European nations. They also plan to meet with human rights and student organizations to seek solidarity for their cause.

Luis López Resendiz, who will be traveling to New York on April 23 to meet up with the rest of the Caravana 43, recognizes the importance of continuing the dialogue, not just in Mexico. “In order for us to continue the discussion of Ayotzinapa, we have to go beyond borders, just as the Caravana 43 did,” he said. “If we are able to cross those invisible borders that were built systematically without notice, then we will bring awareness to a bigger community—to all of the pueblo (people).”

To watch a video of one of the missing student’s parent speaking at the Caravana 43 demonstration in San Diego, click here.


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Rivera, Astrid. “Padres de los 43 planean Caravanaa en países de Europa.” El Universal. April 15, 2015.