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Top Mexico official helped smuggle thousands of kilos of drugs to US

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 today.

Mexico's Defence Secretary General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda salutes soldiers at the Number 1 military camp in Mexico City. Source: Associated Press

General 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 also accused of alerting cartel leaders to a US law enforcement investigation into its operations and the use of cooperating witnesses and informants, which resulted in the murder of a member of the cartel that leaders incorrectly believed was assisting US 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, authorities said.

Mexico authorities don’t identify any drug cartel as H-2, which, according to US officials, was led by Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez. Instead, Mexican officials alleged Patrón Sánchez was a regional leader of the Beltrán Leyva drug cartel. He was killed in 2017 in a shootout with Mexican marines.

US authorities said in court documents that the cartel had numerous distribution cells in the US when Cienfuegos led the Mexican military, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Ohio, Minnesota, North Carolina and New York.

In Mexico, the cartel is accused of trafficking hundreds of firearms and committing “countless acts of horrific violence, including torture and murder, in order to protect against challenges from rival drug trafficking organisations, fight for territory and silence those who would cooperate with law enforcement.”

Cienfuegos was indicted by a grand jury in the Eastern District of New York on August 14, 2019, on charges of conspiracy to participate in international distribution of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana. He could face a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years in prison if convicted.

Federal prosecutors will ask that Cienfuegos be denied bail, saying he is a major flight risk. They say he last visited the United States in March 2019, and if he were captured in Mexico, extradition to the US could take years.

Cienfuegos was scheduled to make an initial appearance later Friday in federal court in Los Angeles. He was expected to be transferred to New York, where his case is being handled.

The former defence secretary was to be represented at the hearing by public defender Ashley Mahmoudian, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment. His personal attorney Rafael Heredia was traveling from Mexico to be there.

Cienfuegos was arrested yesterday upon arrival at Los Angeles International Airport. A senior Mexican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to give details of the case, said Cienfuegos was arrested with family members who were released and he was taken to the Metropolitan Detention Centre. He was expected to appear in court via video from the detention facility.

Cienfuegos is the highest-ranking former Cabinet official arrested since top Mexican security official Genaro Garcia Luna was taken into 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 Cienfuegos 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.