MEXICO CITY—Mexico’s former defense minister received bribes from a drug cartel in exchange for allowing it to ship tons of cocaine and other drugs to the U.S., and used his position to pass along information on investigations to crime bosses, U.S. prosecutors alleged.
The allegations were part of an indictment unsealed Friday against Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who served as defense minister from 2012 to 2018 in then-President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration and led the army’s war on drug cartels. U.S. agents arrested the retired general at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday as he arrived with his family.
Gen. Cienfuegos, 72 years old, is the highest-ranking Mexican official ever charged with drug-related corruption. The arrest is expected to damage bilateral cooperation and trust in the campaign against narcotics trafficking; harm the image of one of the few institutions in Mexico that enjoy broad public support; and raise more doubts about Mexico’s strategy of relying on the army to chase cartels.
“This is a huge scandal,” said Jorge Chabat, a professor at the University of Guadalajara. “It’s a devastating blow to the Mexican army,” which he said is the most important pillar of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s security strategy.
Mexico’s president said the arrest showed that corruption is the country’s biggest problem and reinforced his longstanding claim that past administrations were hopelessly corrupt.
“I always said that it wasn’t just a crisis, but a decadence that we were suffering from,” Mr. López Obrador told a news conference. He won a landslide victory in the 2018 elections, promising to do away with a corrupt “mafia of power.”
Gen. Cienfuegos was unavailable to comment. Mexico’s army declined to comment on the allegations.
The indictment alleges deeply rooted corruption in Mexico’s armed forces. Gen. Cienfuegos, whose nickname is “El Padrino,” or “The Godfather,” according to the indictment, used his position as defense minister to help the H-2 Cartel, a gang more commonly known in Mexico as the Beltrán Leyva organization, to ship drugs without interference from the military.
As defense minister, the indictment alleges, Gen. Cienfuegos warned the cartel about a U.S. law-enforcement investigation that was using an informant in the cartel. Cartel leaders then ordered the killing of a member whom they mistakenly identified as the informant, the indictment alleges.
The indictment alleges that the general also used his position to initiate operations against rival drug gangs, locate maritime transportation for drug shipments, help the cartel expand its territory and introduce cartel leaders to other senior officials willing to be bribed in exchange for helping the gang.
The gang, according to the indictment, used bribes of other top unnamed Mexican government officials to ensure the arrest and torture of rival drug traffickers by Mexican law enforcement; the release of members of the H-2 Cartel from prison; and the ability to engage in wholesale drug trafficking, firearms trafficking and violence, including dozens of murders, without interference by Mexican law-enforcement officials.
U.S. law enforcement intercepted thousands of BlackBerry Messenger messages between the general and gang leaders, according to the indictment.
The arrest raises serious concerns about drug-related corruption throughout the armed forces, which Mexico has long relied on to tackle organized crime and soaring rates of violence.
As a candidate, Mr. López Obrador pledged to pursue a strategy of “hugs, not bullets” that would return the army to the barracks and create a civilian-run national guard. But shortly before taking power in late 2018, the nationalist president was persuaded by military chiefs, including Gen. Cienfuegos, that the armed forces were needed.
Since then, Mr. López Obrador has given the military an even bigger role, granting it control over the national guard, and using it in a range of activities, from building a new airport for Mexico City to putting the Navy in control of the country’s seaports.
Mr. López Obrador said he has confidence in the current top army and navy leadership. But many analysts pointed out that the top five Mexican army officers, including Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval, were promoted by Gen. Cienfuegos and were close aides to the former defense minister.
“People are innocent until proven guilty, but you have to consider the possibility that these guys were somehow involved in what Cienfuegos was doing,” said Craig Deare of the National Defense University and a former head of Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration.
Gen. Cienfuegos’s arrest follows last year’s arrest of Genaro García Luna, a former head of Mexico’s federal police who led the country’s war on drug cartels during the 2006-12 administration of President Felipe Calderón. Mr. García Luna, who has pleaded not guilty to drug-trafficking charges, is in prison awaiting trial in New York. Mr. García Luna’s arrest was followed by arrest orders for two of his senior aides, including the former head of antinarcotics intelligence in the federal police.
The three men were charged after information surfaced in the 2019 New York trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former head of the Sinaloa Cartel, that implicated Mr. García Luna. During the trial, a witness testified that he had handed Mr. García Luna $3 million in cartel money in a suitcase, something Mr. García Luna has denied.
Taken together, the arrests suggest drug-related corruption has infiltrated the most senior levels of Mexican law enforcement and military, analysts said. That leaves U.S. antidrug officials with few counterparts in Mexico they can trust.
“This raises questions about every government branch in Mexico,” said David Shirk, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington who studies security. He added that the Mexican navy has always gotten high praise from U.S. officials for taking down organized-crime targets. But he added that even so, “I don’t think you can assume anything.”
The arrest of Gen. Cienfuegos came as a surprise to people in the U.S. military who had worked closely with him to strengthen ties with the Mexican military, said Sergio de la Peña, who retired recently as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere.
“In Mexico, people are put in situations where there is enormous temptation,” said Mr. de la Peña. “And the possibility of succumbing to that temptation is always there. It’s disappointing.”
The corruption scandals highlight the corrosive effects on Mexico of U.S. drug demand. Over the past two decades, Mexico has become the largest supplier of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and synthetic drugs such as meth and fentanyl.
As drugs flow north, billions of dollars in cash and tens of thousands of weapons flow south, empowering cartels. The money has been used to corrupt Mexican institutions, and the weapons are largely responsible for more than 200,000 homicides since 2006.
Mexico, for its part, has failed to create capable and honest law-enforcement institutions. In the early 2000s, successive administrations set about building a federal police force that could tackle organized crime, allowing soldiers to return to their barracks.
That hasn’t happened. Mr. Peña Nieto’s administration largely ignored the federal police, freezing funding. And Mr. López Obrador then dissolved the force, arguing the country needed to start over with a European-style national guard.
The army is one of Mexico’s few admired institutions, largely because of its role in disaster relief and its practice of staying on the political sidelines in a region where military coups often ousted civilian governments. More than 83% think the army is effective in its performance, according to a government survey. That compares with less than 40% for local police.
—Santiago Pérez and Anthony Harrup contributed to this article.
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