MEXICO CITY – A former Mexican Defense Secretary was arrested Thursday evening after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport with his family. This was the first high-ranking military official to be taken into custody in the US in connection with drug-related corruption in his country, according to the Mexican government.
Former official, General Salvador Cienfuegos, who was Mexico’s Secretary of Defense from 2012 to 2018, was arrested by American officials at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration and is charged with drug and money laundering according to a US state law enforcement officer in New York.
“A defense minister has never been arrested in Mexico,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister. “The defense minister in Mexico is a man who not only heads the army and is a soldier, but reports directly to the president. There is no one above him but the president. “
The exact charges General Cienfuegos will face were not immediately clear, and Drug Enforcement Administration officials did not respond to requests for comment.
General Cienfuegos was Minister of Defense at a time when killings were rising to historic levels and drug cartels were at war.
“This is a big deal,” said Alejandro Madrazo, a professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City. “The military has become much more corrupt and much more abusive since the declaration of the War on Drugs, and for the first time they may not be sacrosanct – but not by the Mexican government, by the American government.”
The Mexican military has played a central role in public safety since crackdown on drug cartels began in 2006, dispatching soldiers to regions overrun by organized crime. The Defense Minister oversees these efforts.
Suspicions of corruption in the Mexican military have long emerged in private conversations. Anti-corruption crackdowns have resulted in the arrest of politicians, police officers and even the official credited with developing the drug control strategy that sparked the war on drugs.
But the military has an extraordinary degree of autonomy, seldom bowing to political pressure, and usually enjoys the protection of the president, who relies on them to help defend the nation.
With the military playing a central role in the fight against drug trafficking, the Mexican government has never established an effective police force. The use of soldiers trained in combat but not involved in policing has posed problems of its own.
The military has been repeatedly selected for human rights abuses and the use of excessive force, including extrajudicial assassinations that persecuted the armed forces throughout General Cienfuegos’ tenure as Defense Minister.
But no senior Mexican military official has been charged with money laundering and drug trafficking. Such charges would represent a new front in efforts to fight corruption and the extraordinary power that organized crime wields in Mexico.
The previous significant case in the fight against drug-related corruption in Mexico was in December 2019 when the authorities in the US arrested Genaro García Luna, the former public security secretary and architect of the national antitrust war. He was accused of working for one of the cartels he was supposed to prosecute.
The arrest of General Cienfuegos does not appear to have been a joint operation with the Mexican government. Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in a Twitter post that he only learned from the US ambassador on Thursday evening that the former defense minister had been taken into custody.
Natalie Kitroeff contributed to the coverage.