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  HOME | Mexico

Mexican Ex-Defense Chief Charged in US with Drug, Money Laundering Conspiracy

NEW YORK – Mexico’s former defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda has been arrested on a United States Drug Enforcement Administration warrant and indicted on charges that he accepted bribes in exchange for allowing the H-2 Cartel, a drug-trafficking organization, to operate with impunity.

Cienfuegos, who served as defense secretary under Mexican former president Enrique Peña Nieto, was arrested on Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport and charged on Friday with four counts relating to drug trafficking and money laundering.

The indictment filed in August 2019 in the Brooklyn-based US District Court for the Eastern District of New York and unsealed on Friday alleges that Cienfuegos committed the crimes over a period of just over a year between December 2015 and January 2017 while he was at the helm of the Defense Secretariat.

In the indictment, a federal grand jury charges Cienfuegos with three counts related to the manufacture, importation and distribution of narcotics and one count of conspiring to launder the proceeds from their sale.

The arrest is regarded by analysts as a blow to the already-tarnished legacy of Peña Nieto and to the reputation of Mexico’s armed forces.

“The defendant Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, also known as ‘El Padrino’ and ‘Zepeda,’ together with others, did knowingly and intentionally conspire to manufacture and distribute one or more controlled substances, intending, knowing and having reasonable cause to believe that such substances would be unlawfully imported into the United States from a place outside thereof,” the indictment reads.

According to court documents, the DEA’s multi-year sting known as “Operation Padrino” is linked to an earlier investigation into the criminal activities of the former attorney general of the western Mexican state of Nayarit, Edgar Veytia, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years behind bars in September 2019 for his role in an international drug-trafficking conspiracy.

Prosecutors had accused Veytia, a dual US and Mexican citizen, of receiving regular bribes and providing official sanction for the H-2 Cartel to import illegal drugs from Mexico to the US.

They also alleged that he used his position as top law enforcement officer in his state to obstruct investigations and prosecutions of drug traffickers in Mexico and secure the release from prison of members and associates of the H-2 Cartel.

The US government now accuses Cienfuegos of having had ties to Juan Francisco Patron Sanchez, alias H-2, a top leader of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel who was killed by Mexican marines in February 2017.

“Due in part to the defendant’s corrupt assistance, the H-2 Cartel conducted its criminal activity in Mexico without significant interference from the Mexican military and imported thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States,” prosecutors said in a letter Friday to Eastern District Judge Carol B. Amon.

Before learning about the charges, leftist Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who was elected in July 2018 on an anti-corruption platform, said the arrest of Cienfuegos was an “unequivocal sign of the breakdown” of the previous neo-liberal regime.

Speaking Friday at his regular daily news conference, Lopez Obrador said the news of Cienfuegos’ arrest was “regrettable” and compared it to last year’s detention – also in the US – of Genaro Garcia Luna, who served as public safety secretary in former president Felipe Calderon’s 2006-2012 administration and oversaw the country’s now-defunct civilian Federal Police force.

The police have long been maligned in Mexico, but Cienfuegos’ arrest calls into question the integrity of the military, a key pillar for years in Mexico’s strategy against organized crime.


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