Trial of Mexico’s Former Top Cop Neglected U.S. Role in War on Drugs

Genaro García Luna was convicted on Tuesday of accepting millions in cartel bribes. But the information U.S. officials had went mostly unexplored.

Mexico's former Public Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna listens as the Judge Brian Cogan instructs the jury, New York City, Feb. 16, 2023.
Mexico’s former Public Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna listens as the Judge Brian Cogan instructs the jury, in New York City on Feb. 16, 2023. Courtroom sketch: Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

On Tuesday, Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former top law enforcement official known as the “architect” of the Mexican side of the drug war, was found guilty in New York federal court of collaborating with the Sinaloa cartel, the biggest organized crime group in North America.

For years, García Luna was the U.S. government’s most trusted ally in the war on drugs. As public security secretary, he wielded incredible power, overseeing Mexico’s Federal Police, the prison network, and a vast intelligence-gathering infrastructure, while working with the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, CIA, and Department of Homeland Security in the fight against Mexican cartels.

“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,” said Breon Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

For experts and human rights advocates watching, however, the trial was ultimately underwhelming, revealing little about how the U.S. government and other Mexican politicians are implicated in the war on drugs. Rather, the case portrayed García Luna and his network of corrupt officials as a handful of bad apples, and what U.S. officials knew about García Luna’s illicit activities went mostly unexplored, despite the government’s role in providing funding, equipment, and training that has fueled drug-related violence. The ongoing conflict has led to 400,000 people killed, 82,000 disappeared, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

García Luna was found guilty of all five charges, including drug trafficking and continuing a criminal enterprise. Prosecutors alleged that he received around $274 million in bribes from the cartel from 2001 to 2012, first as head of the Federal Investigative Agency, the Mexican equivalent of the FBI, and then as secretary of public security.

García Luna was known to show off how close he was with U.S. officials: He held photo-ops and meetings with top U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and U.S. Attorney Eric Holder. Within the first couple years of his tenure as Mexico’s top cop, a glowing New York Times Magazine profile called him “The Fixer.”

Despite hints during the trial at how U.S. government officials may have known about García Luna’s dealings with the cartel, the dearth of physical evidence meant that the verdict largely relied on witness testimony and secondhand information. At one point, the prosecution even moved to stop the defense from asking questions about García Luna’s high-level meetings in Washington, D.C.

Though no solid allegations against the U.S. and Mexican governments emerged from the trial, experts say the verdict should be considered as a wider indictment of political corruption on both sides of the border, at the expense of victims of the militarized drug war.

“García Luna’s guilty verdict confirms the legacy of corruption in the governments of Felipe Calderón and Vicente Fox left in the wake of the U.S.-backed ‘war on drugs,’” said Oswaldo Zavala, a professor at the City University of New York and author of “Drug Cartels Do Not Exist: Narcotrafficking in U.S. and Mexican Culture.” “It should also be understood as a condemnation of decades of violent anti-drug policies that only enriched a few, while hurting the most vulnerable and disenfranchised.”


A man holds a poster with a picture of former Mexican Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outside the courthouse where the trial of Genaro García Luna was held, on Feb. 21, 2023, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

In 2001, under Mexican President Vicente Fox, García Luna became the head of the Federal Investigation Agency, known by its Spanish acronym AFI. At the time, the Sinaloa cartel was divided into factions: One was led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, and another by Arturo Beltrán Leyva, Guzmán’s cousin.

According to the prosecution’s first witness, Sergio “El Grande” Villarreal Barragán, a former leader in the Beltrán Leyva faction, cartel members would pool money together to bribe García Luna and other top AFI officials, and, in exchange, AFI assisted the Sinaloa cartel in its war against rival groups. AFI also supplied cartel members with fake AFI uniforms, credentials, and vehicles, Villarreal Barragán said, and AFI agents would help conducts raids against rivals. The relationship allowed the cartel to traffic drugs and expand its territory within Mexico, while García Luna and AFI officials enjoyed the spoils of the cartel’s success.

In 2006, the new President Felipe Calderón appointed García Luna as secretary of public security, a cabinet-level position. When the Sinaloa cartel learned of the imminent appointment, Jesús “El Rey” Zambada, a former top cartel leader and brother of Ismael Zambada, testified that he and the cartel’s attorney delivered $3 million and $2 million to García Luna on two separate occasions.

That same year, the Mexican government launched the war on drugs. As the top law enforcement official in the country, García Luna became the face of the war, helping Calderón forge a new relationship with the U.S. to combat organized crime. As the drug war got underway, Jesús Zambada testified, Mexico’s Federal Police, who operated under García Luna, was helping the cartel traffic drugs through the Mexico City airport.

In 2008, the U.S. intensified its role in the drug war with a $1.5 billion security cooperation agreement with Mexico called the Mérida Initiative. The U.S. began sending weapons and money, and providing training to Mexican security units, as part of the effort to stop drug trafficking into the U.S. The Mérida Initiative approached the drug war using what is known as the “kingpin strategy” to arrest and extradite leaders of the major drug trafficking organizations; Guzmán was among the cartel leaders taken down as part of these efforts.

U.S.-trained units have been implicated in grave rights abuses and organized crime. Throughout the trial, prosecutors alleged that Ivan Reyes Arzate, a former top Federal Police official, worked with García Luna and undermined operations against criminal groups. But what flew under the radar was that Reyes Arzate, who is now in a U.S. federal prison, was the top commander of the DEA’s most-trusted unit inside the police force and received specialized training in Quantico, Virginia.

“When the U.S. had the most influence over security policy in Mexico — because the Federal Police was something we were deeply invested in — the whole system was corrupt and flawed,” said Michael Lettieri, a senior fellow for human rights at University of California, San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

During the trial, a DEA agent testified that the U.S. government knew of his alleged ties to organized crime since 2010, two years before he stepped down from office. The agent said that Villarreal Barragán — the former Beltrán Leyva lieutenant — had provided him information on the bribes to García Luna. In 2009, the DEA’s chief of intelligence operations, Anthony Placido, said in a public interview that the agency suspected García Luna of having ties to organized crime. Despite the DEA’s suspicions, the U.S. government continued working with him for at least three more years.

When a former U.S. ambassador took the stand, more questions were raised than answered about the U.S. government’s work with García Luna. Earl Anthony Wayne served as U.S. ambassador in Mexico starting in 2011. He met García Luna multiple times, Wayne testified, but said that “no one from law enforcement” ever told him García Luna was corrupt. When the defense asked Wayne about high-level meetings in D.C. with former officials, the prosecution objected, ending the line of questioning.

Some witnesses made charged but unsubstantiated allegations about top Mexican officials, including Calderón and current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Edgar Veytia, a former attorney general from the Mexican state of Nayarit who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for working with cartels, testified on February 7 that the state’s governor told him that, in a meeting in Mexico City, Calderón and García Luna had said he needed to ally with Guzmán. At that time, the Nayarit state government was allied with Beltrán Leyva.

Calderón took to Twitter to deny Veytia’s allegations. “What he says about me is an absolute lie. I never negotiated nor made a pact with criminals,” he wrote. A poll from the Spanish-language newspaper El País found last week that 84 percent of Mexican respondents are in favor of an investigation into Calderón’s alleged ties to organized crime.

García Luna’s defense threw a political jab of its own when cross-examining Zambada. Defense attorney Cesar de Castro asked him about a $7 million bribe he allegedly made to Gabriel Regino, who served as Mexico City’s public security chief when Lopez Obrador was mayor, claiming the money was for Lopez Obrador’s 2006 presidential campaign. Regino has denied the allegation, and Zambada denied that the money was for Lopez Obrador or his campaign.

The probing into García Luna’s alleged financial dealings does not end with Tuesday’s verdict, as the Mexican government is plowing ahead with civil charges that he stole money from Mexico.

García Luna left public office in 2012 following a change in presidency and moved to Miami where he started a security consulting company and lived a lavish lifestyle. Judge Brian Cogan barred any information about García Luna’s life post-2012 from being presented during the trial. (García Luna’s wife testified that their homes and assets in Mexico prior to the Miami move were purchased legitimately.)

In 2021, the Mexican government filed a civil lawsuit in Florida against García Luna, alleging he took over $700 million from government contracts; that case, experts hope, may reveal physical evidence of bribes that did not appear in the New York trial.

“I think that there may have been a lot more opportunity for documentary evidence, especially given the Mexican civil suit and what their financial crimes unit has been doing,” said Nathan P. Jones, a nonresident scholar in drug policy and Mexico studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “That may have resulted in a case that may have had more paper documentation to back up the witness statements, if it hadn’t been limited to the pre-2012 period.”

While García Luna faces up to life in prison, the drug war shows no signs of ending.

Since he stepped down from office, the U.S. and Mexico’s “kingpin strategy” has led to the splintering of organized crime groups. Under Lopez Obrador, the Mérida Initiative was declared dead in 2021, but the Mexican president and U.S. President Joe Biden signed a similar security cooperation agreement later that same year. Despite Lopez Obrador’s campaign promise of “hugs, not bullets,” the National Guard — which replaced the Federal Police — along with the Army and Navy, continue to patrol the streets in the fight against organized crime. Lopez Obrador has also backed constitutional reforms for the continued militarization of public security until 2028.

On the U.S. side, 21 state attorneys general submitted a letter to Biden this month, requesting that Mexican cartels be designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, a move that would only heighten militarized action against drug trafficking groups and civilians.

“The actual verdict does matter, at least for the next three to four years while people still remember that it happened,” said Lettieri. “And then, 15 years down the road, it’ll be, ‘Garcia Luna who?’ And we’ll be exactly where we were — doing the same thing, losing the same battles, fighting the same war.”

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