February 6, 2023

When Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, was on trial in New York’s Eastern District in 2018-2019, it provided hours of entertaining news for US cable shows. Hosts gaped and laughed at stories from guzman running naked through a tunnel to escape the Marines, building a private zoo with lions and tigers, and of his lover crying on the witness stand while his beauty queen cackled from the public gallery.

When former Mexican Secretary of State Genaro García Luna began his cocaine trafficking trial in the same court this month, US coverage was thinner and more serious. The majority of the journalists who lined up to enter the courthouse on the chilly mornings were from Mexican media. But if the allegations are true, then Garcia Luna’s trial will serve as evidence that the Mexican state plays as important a role as the cartel leaders guzman by bringing billions of dollars worth of drugs to American consumers – and by causing a bloodbath in Mexico while rivals fight for those profits.

In his opening speech, federal prosecutor Philip Pilmar presented the case Garcia Luna used his position as head of Mexico’s FBI from 2001 to 2006, and then as cabinet-level security chief until 2012, to protect the drug cartels he claimed to be fighting. “While he was charged with working for the Mexican people, he also had a second job, a dirtier job, a more profitable job,” Pilmar said. The top cop not only got rich off cocaine dollars, but used federal police as a paramilitary force to take out cartel rivals, prosecutors said.

When Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, was on trial in New York’s Eastern District in 2018-2019, it provided hours of entertaining news for US cable shows. Hosts gaped and laughed at stories from guzman running naked through a tunnel to escape the Marines, building a private zoo with lions and tigers, and of his lover crying on the witness stand while his beauty queen cackled from the public gallery.

When former Mexican Secretary of State Genaro García Luna began his cocaine trafficking trial in the same court this month, US coverage was thinner and more serious. The majority of the journalists who lined up to enter the courthouse on the chilly mornings were from Mexican media. But if the allegations are true, then Garcia Luna’s trial will serve as evidence that the Mexican state plays as important a role as the cartel leaders guzman by bringing billions of dollars worth of drugs to American consumers – and by causing a bloodbath in Mexico while rivals fight for those profits.

In his opening speech, federal prosecutor Philip Pilmar presented the case Garcia Luna used his position as head of Mexico’s FBI from 2001 to 2006, and then as cabinet-level security chief until 2012, to protect the drug cartels he claimed to be fighting. “While he was charged with working for the Mexican people, he also had a second job, a dirtier job, a more profitable job,” Pilmar said. The top cop not only got rich off cocaine dollars, but used federal police as a paramilitary force to take out cartel rivals, prosecutors said.

Allegations of massive police involvement in human trafficking come as no surprise to those journalists who have covered Mexico’s tragic drug war for the past two decades. As historians show, cartels have grown from their humble beginnings as small farmers through networks of corruption in the security forces. In the 1920s, a famous Mexican policeman named Valente Quintana was spotted protecting drug smugglers, writes Benjamin Smith The Dope: The True Story of the Mexican Drug Trade. Around the 1970s, drug trafficking areas became known as “places” based on police districts in which they were allowed to operate.

The career path between gangster and policeman became like a revolving door. Many of the most notorious traffickers, including Miguel Angel Felix GallardoShe started out in the police force before joining the mafia to make her fortune from moving products. In other cases, criminals join the police in order to get guns and a badge. Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as El Mencho, served time in prison for heroin before getting a job as an officer in Jalisco.

In fact, the prosecution’s first witness was a former police officer-turned-cartel enforcer who was arrested and persuaded to cooperate with the US government: the hulking Sergio Villarreal Barragán, known as El Grande. He described seeing payments Garcia Luna of millions of dollars stuffed into duffel bags or boxes. Garcia Luna was a secret agent before being appointed head of the federal criminal investigation agency in 2001. Allegations that he worked with cartels date back to this period, although they may have been bogus earlier.

But while such pervasive corruption has been widely acknowledged, bringing such a senior Mexican official before a US jury is unprecedented. The fact that prosecutors are after not only the flamboyant gangsters but also their political protection is a step forward.

It wasn’t an easy case to build. Although US agents have heard allegations against Garcia Luna for at least a decade, prosecutors hesitated. The defense claims the government will not present convincing physical evidence of its work with cartels, relying instead on the testimony of so-called cooperating witnesses — scarred gangsters like El Grande who could have done business for their testimony. In making the selection, the prosecution was vigorous to ensure that the jury could accept such statements and convict someone for them. While it seemed easy that El Chapo would be found guilty, this case looks more complicated.

And while US prosecutors should be commended for their antitrust protection efforts, the revelations are embarrassing for US law enforcement agencies. US drug agents worked closely with him Garcia Luna, and he cuddled with Washington’s high ranks; the defense featured photos of him with then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-Attorney General Eric Holder and even then-US President Barack Obama.

In Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador looked upbeat as he spoke about the trial as evidence of how corrupt his predecessors were. “It’s shameful. It’s an agency of the highest caliber … and at the same time as his public safety charge, he protected one of the cartels,” he said during a presentation on the case at his morning news briefing on Tuesday.

Lopez Obrador came to power in 2018 with a promise to fight corruption at the highest level, or “clean up the government like a stair case” – that is, from the top down. Still, his administration hasn’t prosecuted many corruption cases in the judiciary, and it’s telling that the trial is taking place in New York City rather than Mexico City. Mexican judges have convicted generals and governors for collaborating with drug gangs in the past, but none as powerful an official as Garcia Luna – or a former President. The challenge of prosecuting high-ranking officials for crimes is that it can be politically very divisive and even destabilizing for a country. And past presidents still have plenty of money and connections to try to fight indictments.

In 2021, Lopez Obrador held a popular consultative vote on whether former presidents should be tried if they are found to have committed a crime. Almost 97 percent said they should, although only about 7 percent of people voted. Various former Mexican presidents have been accused in the media of colluding with cartels, including García Luna’s former boss, former President Felipe Calderón, who commentators say must have known what was going on. Calderón has never been charged and vigorously denies the allegations.

if Garcia Luna is convicted, then it should at least be a deterrent for officials south of the border not to openly collude with cartels. That would be a positive development for security. Corruption in Mexico fuels violence as rival gangsters can have rival protectors. Witness Villarreal Barragán told the court that a former federal police chief, Édgar Millán Gómez, who was shot dead, worked for certain traffickers.

Security forces have also been accused of committing mass violence themselves on behalf of their patrons. Perhaps the most notorious case occurred in 2014, when police in the city of Iguala arrested 43 male students and allegedly turned them over to cartel killers. All of this has led to a humanitarian tragedy in Mexico, with more than 30,000 murders a year, mass graves and thousands of people seeking asylum in the United States to escape the bloodshed.

Nonetheless, officers can still collect drug money, perhaps through more sophisticated methods, such as through middlemen. According to a Rand Corporation study, Americans spend nearly $150 billion a year on illegal drugs, and as long as traffickers south of the border can make that much money from this trade, they will continue to throw money at police and politicians for protection. The United States certainly needs to find a way to reduce the mountain of drug dollars flowing back down the Rio Grande – perhaps through much better addiction treatment.

However, pursuing political protection of cartels is still good police work. And it won’t be the last case. Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was extradited to the United States last year for drug trafficking. Washington must keep up the pressure on the cartels’ apparent control over politicians.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *