A Brooklyn jury will on Thursday begin deliberating the fate of a former high-ranking Mexican security official accused of taking millions in bribes from the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel in a case that has exposed the failures of the drug war waged by the US and Mexico.
The jury heard how, in late 2006, the cartel’s lawyer Oscar Paredes met Genaro García Luna — then head of Mexico’s FBI, and soon to be the country’s minister for public security, in a Mexico City restaurant and passed his associates a briefcase and duffel bag containing $3mn in cash.
In exchange for the cash, García Luna — who would later meet senior US officials such as Hillary Clinton as the figurehead of Mexico’s war on drugs — pledged to protect the Sinaloa cartel and “make sure there were no investigations”, the criminal organisation’s one-time accountant Jesús “El Rey” Zambada told a Brooklyn federal court this week.
Testimony from the trial, in which García Luna is facing five criminal counts related to drug trafficking, has highlighted failures on both sides of the border to stop the violence and death caused by the illegal drug trade and shown how the cartel expanded its operations with impunity, allegedly with help from high-ranking Mexican officials.
Building on evidence that led to the conviction of former Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2019, US prosecutors have characterised García Luna, who was arrested in Dallas in 2019, as a “smart, ambitious, powerful, and self-serving politician” who made millions of dollars from the cartel.
During the trial, which took place under heightened security in a US federal courthouse, witnesses said they made or saw payments going to García Luna, one of the most senior in a long history of Mexican officials accused of colluding with drug traffickers.
Sinaloa members said they spent about $1.5mn a month bribing government and law enforcement officials, a fraction of the roughly $3bn it reportedly made in annual profits from their trafficking cocaine to big American cities.
As a result, the cartel became the “FedEx of cocaine”, US prosecutors said, using trains, ships, containers and submarines to flood America with tens of thousands of kilogrammes of the substance.
Lawyers for García Luna, who pleaded not guilty, said the witnesses were people responsible for “horrific crimes” such as murder and torture, who were now “testifying to save themselves”, and were co-operating in the hope of receiving reduced sentences, or to get their families to the US.
Closing arguments took place in Brooklyn on Wednesday, and jurors are set to begin deliberating on García Luna’s fate as soon as Thursday. If convicted on all counts, he faces a potential life sentence.
The US and Mexico have often clashed as they navigate one of the world’s most intense security relationships. US officials have contended with systemic corruption in Mexico, while Mexican officials say they have been unfairly blamed for a problem created by demand for drugs and free-flowing guns north of the border.
During what the US government called the cartel’s “golden years”, from 2000-06, prosecutors alleged that García Luna had control of the country’s highways, airports and ports, and that his agency would tip off cartel operatives about potential raids. The cartel was able to transport “El Chapo”, then an escaped convict and Latin America’s most wanted man, through the centre of Mexico City under the noses of police in 2001, Zambada said.
Tracks were even laid between a cartel warehouse and Mexico’s largest train station, prosecutors said, providing a base to traffic cocaine into the US.
“These witnesses are describing the stuff that you see in gangster type movies,” said Andrew Rudman, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. “Even if you had both governments fully, fully, fully, engaged and in lockstep, it doesn’t just go away.”
Under former president Felipe Calderón, who began a new combative approach to drug traffickers in 2006, Mexico’s murder rate exploded and has climbed since. It is estimated that more than 350,000 people have been killed since 2006 and more than 100,000 are missing.
The war on drugs itself has shifted, as Mexico has evolved from serving primarily as a route for smuggling cocaine from South America to also producing synthetic opioids such as fentanyl using precursor chemicals from China. In the US, there have been more than 100,000 deaths involving synthetic opioids in the 12 months to August.
García Luna’s trial comes as the administrations of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and his counterpart Joe Biden have been trying to repair damage done to security co-operation by US authorities’ arrest of a retired Mexican general, Salvador Cienfuegos, in 2021. The US quickly released Cienfuegos and abandoned its case after receiving fierce blowback from Mexico.
López Obrador says he has embraced a “hugs not bullets” approach to the drug trade, irking some US observers who have doubted his commitment to stopping it. García Luna’s trial has captivated the Mexican press, and López Obrador has provided extensive updates on the proceedings in his morning news conferences, which fits his narrative that his predecessors were all corrupt.
As in the past though, Mexican officials are still much more likely to end up on trial in the US than at home, where prosecutors have shown limited willingness to try to dismantle cartels.
Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official who is now a security consultant, said US prosecutions of Mexican drug traffickers focus on drug-related crimes that reach across international borders, rather than violent crimes such as murder, and often end with plea deals, limiting their usefulness as deterrents.
“We’re talking about tens if not thousands of murders and none of them are going to get a single punishment for those murders,” he said.
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