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.
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.