Sunday, December 18, 2022

Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda: Former Mexican SecDef And Drug Cartel Padron

propublica  |  Two years ago, the DEA arrested a Mexican general, hoping to lay bare the high-level corruption at the heart of organized crime. Then the case fell apart — and took down U.S.-Mexican cooperation on drug policy with it. 

When the Cienfuegos family landed at Los Angeles International Airport on Oct. 15, 2020, they looked excited and maybe a bit relieved. With the pandemic still ravaging Mexico, they had come to vacation in Southern California. Arranging such a visit wasn’t a problem, even on short notice: The patriarch, retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, had made powerful American friends during his six years as Mexico’s defense minister. When he needed a favor — like visas for his wife, daughters and granddaughters — he could still call someone at the Pentagon or the CIA.

But as the family approached the passport line, an immigration officer waved them to one side. A trim, middle-aged man — dressed, like the general, in a blue blazer and jeans — stepped forward and introduced himself in Spanish as a special agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Could he speak with the general privately? he asked.

The two men crowded into a small office with several other law-enforcement officers. “There is a warrant for your arrest, sir,” the agent said. “This is a copy of the indictment against you.”

Cienfuegos wore a face mask with a clear plastic shield over it, but there was no hiding his confusion and anger. There must be some mistake, he insisted. “Do you know who I am?”

The agents did. For years, U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies had been watching Cienfuegos as he rose through the Mexican army to become defense minister in 2012. Since late 2015, the DEA had been investigating what it believed were Cienfuegos’ corrupt dealings with a second-tier drug gang based in the small Pacific Coast state Nayarit. In 2019, he had been secretly indicted on drug-conspiracy charges by a federal grand jury in Brooklyn.

“I have worked with your CIA,” Cienfuegos protested. “I have been honored by your Department of Defense!”

“I understand,” the DEA agent said. “But you have still been charged.”

In the tumultuous days before the 2020 election — with COVID-19 cases surging, President Donald Trump barnstorming and Senate Republicans rushing to confirm a Supreme Court justice — the jailing of a retired Mexican general didn’t make the front pages, even in Los Angeles. It did make headlines in Mexico City. But President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, who had long promised to vanquish the country’s deeply rooted corruption, seemed to take the news in stride. “It is a very regrettable fact that a former defense secretary should be arrested on charges of having ties to drug trafficking,” he said the next morning. “We must continue to insist — and hopefully this helps us understand — that the main problem of Mexico is corruption.”

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