Prosecution of Top Mexican Security Official Exposes the Facade of the Drug War

The architect of Mexico’s bloody drug war and close ally of U.S. intelligence officials stands accused of taking millions from El Chapo.

Mexico's Public Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna (R)  attends a meeting with the Human Rights commission at the Senate in Mexico City November 29, 2012. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo (MEXICO - Tags: POLITICS) - GM1E8BU0TJ101
Mexico's Public Security Minister Genaro García Luna, far right, attends a meeting with the Human Rights commission at the Senate in Mexico City on Nov. 29, 2012. Photo: Tomas Bravo/Reuters

Genaro García Luna looked bewildered as he stepped into the brightly lit Brooklyn courtroom. Once one of Mexico’s most powerful officials, with friends and associates across the upper echelons of the U.S. national security apparatus, the 51-year-old’s hands were shackled at the waist. The dark suits he once wore as he paraded wanted men before the Mexican press were now replaced by loose-fitting khakis and a shabby gray sweatshirt.

The hearing was brief, with García Luna pleading not guilty to three counts of trafficking cocaine and a false statement charge. The January 3 arraignment marked his first appearance in a New York court since he was accused, a month earlier, of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa drug cartel for more than a decade, all while working hand in glove with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Federal prosecutors, citing his wealth and the seriousness of his alleged offenses, argued for his continued detention. The judge granted the government’s request.

As García Luna was led out of the courtroom, he paused at the doorway. His family was sitting among the crowd of reporters. He looked to them and pressed his fist to his chest. His wife and two children rose to their feet and did the same. When the door closed behind him, García Luna’s daughter broke down in tears.

An architect of the drug war under former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, García Luna parlayed his experience into the private intelligence world, relocating to Miami and starting a firm that included on its advisory board the former head of the CIA’s covert operations wing. Now accused of committing the very crimes he had ostensibly devoted his life to stamping out, his prosecution not only has serious implications for the man at its center, it also casts an unflattering light on his intelligence and law enforcement partners in the U.S., while underscoring the grim legacy of a conflict that’s produced generations of trauma and bloodshed.

García Luna could face anywhere from 10 years to life in prison. Regardless of the outcome, the very fact of his prosecution is historically significant, said Oswaldo Zavala, author of the book, “The Cartels Do Not Exist.” Zavala, a Mexican journalist turned professor at CUNY, argues that media and pop culture framing of Mexican drug trafficking has long distorted and erased the central role that national security officials like García Luna have played in shaping Mexico as it exists today. That García Luna has now found himself in a U.S. court, he argues, suggests an opportunity to dispel tired and dangerous narratives. “I certainly think this is a very important development,” Zavala told me, describing it as “a political event more than anything else.”

García Luna’s fall from grace began more than a year ago, in the same Brooklyn courthouse where he was arraigned, when a witness in Guzman’s criminal trial claimed to have paid off the former public security secretary with millions of dollars stuffed in suitcases. While the current prosecution has received much less attention than that of García Luna’s more infamous counterpart, Zavala believes it is every bit as important, if not more so. When Calderón sent troops into the streets in 2006, he explained, officials on both sides of the border needed a story to tell, one with good guys and bad guys. Men like El Chapo and Genaro García Luna were slotted to play those roles. “One was the policeman, one was supposedly the enemy, the criminal,” Zavala said. “The two of them set in motion the national security agenda that the U.S. propelled into Mexico starting in 2006.”

With that agenda in place, a new chapter in the story of Mexico began, one that was bloodier than anything the country had seen since its revolution nearly a century earlier. Over the past decade and a half, approximately 150,000 murders have been linked to drug war violence in Mexico. Disappearances are endemic, with Mexican security forces routinely implicated in the crimes. Just this month, the Mexican government acknowledged the disappearance of more than 61,000 people, with more than 97 percent having vanished after 2006. The Washington Post described it as evidence that “Mexico is suffering one of the worst crises of ‘the disappeared’ in Latin American history.”

Though homicides in Mexico remain at record high levels, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has sought to break with the militarized drug war legacy of his predecessors. And with that, Zavala argued, the value of men like Guzman and García Luna has shifted. “The system no longer needs them,” he said. For someone like El Chapo, Zavala said, the end was largely a foregone conclusion — death or prison. For García Luna, it’s different. “He really does have a lot more to lose,” he said. “I’m not talking just about money. I’m talking about relations, links, legitimate links to agencies in the U.S., Mexico, and elsewhere.”

The fall of a man once hailed as a Mexican super cop was not entirely unexpected. For years, journalists and State Department officials in Mexico City raised concerns that García Luna was at best negligent to the corruption around him and at worst guilty of precisely the brand of criminality New York prosecutors have accused him of. Despite those concerns, García Luna was granted lawful residence in the U.S., setting up shop in Florida and revealing a level of wealth that raised more than a few eyebrows back in Mexico City.

Whether the prosecution will impact García Luna’s contacts in the U.S. law enforcement, intelligence, and private sector community remains to be seen. “A lot of people are paranoid right now,” said Jerry Robinette, a former special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Texas who now works in private security consulting. Others are confused. “I’m really befuddled by the whole thing,” said Alejandro Hope, a former intelligence officer at CISEN, Mexico’s lead intelligence agency, now a security analyst in Mexico City. “The guy had access to many, many different forms of corruption that the U.S. does not give a damn about,” he said. “The only thing that the U.S. cares about in Mexico is getting money from drug traffickers. That’s it.” That fact would not be lost on a man like García Luna, Hope argued, and so, “why would he agree to receive — directly, personally, in public — a bribe from a major figure in Mexican organized crime?”

And if García Luna did that, Hope went on to say, why would it take years for U.S. authorities to catch on? The U.S. intelligence community has had a relationship with García Luna for at least two decades, he noted. “They never found out? They never had suspicion that this was going on?”

When El Chapo eventually found himself in a U.S. court, the story that emerged through months of testimony was one many had come to expect: a tale of drug traffickers killing each other, narco cash, and tantalizing glimpses of his romantic life. “The stuff that makes a good Netflix show,” Zavala said, or a bad one, “but doesn’t really touch on real power.” A García Luna trial could offer something different, he continued, a chance at “seeing real power.”

Members of Mexico's Federal Investigation agency, AFI, as well as Mexican army soldiers guard a street during a raid  to search for members of the Juarez drug cartel on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Wednesday June 14, 2006. Mexico's drug wars are becoming a central issue in the country's July 2 presidential race, with one candidate calling for U.S.-style trials and extraditions and another saying crime can only be solved with more jobs and social programs.(AP Photo/Raymundo Ruiz)

Members of Mexico’s Agencia Federal de Investigación, or AFI, work alongside Mexican army soldiers to guard a street during a raid on Juarez drug cartel members on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on June 14, 2006.

Photo: Raymundo Ruiz/AP

A Trusted Liaison

If Zavala is right that the drug war in Mexico is a bundle of hollow narratives hiding the true shape of power in the country, then you would be hard-pressed to find a more fascinating and potentially illustrative example of that than Genaro García Luna. To Zavala, García Luna’s story reflects a much deeper and longer story of how “national security” priorities defined by the United States are experienced by Mexico.

In the early 1980s, Zavala explained, “most policemen in Mexico were, in one way or another, intimately familiar if not productively working with the underworld in Mexico. Not just drug trafficking — we’re talking all kinds of informal economies.” The ground shifted in 1985, with the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Before Camarena’s death, the illicit transportation of drugs in Mexico was largely controlled by a federation of traffickers, whose connections to the Mexican state ran deep. “We tend to remember them now as traffickers who were very much effective at corrupting policemen in Mexico,” Zavala said. “But the way we should actually look at it is how they were actually used and instrumentalized by police agencies back then.”

The fallout from Camarena’s killing contributed to the dismantling of one of those agencies: the Dirección Federal de Seguridad, or DFS. The premiere Mexican intelligence agency at the time, the DFS was implicated in Camarena’s murder and a pattern of human rights abuses during Mexico’s dirty wars of the 1960s and ’70s. Along with the CIA, the DFS was also linked to northbound drug trafficking from Central America during the 1980s, in support of the U.S.-backed campaign to oust the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Coinciding with the end of the Cold War, the post-Camarena era marked a shift in U.S. national security priorities, Zavala argues, from a war on communists to a war on drug traffickers. “They ended up on the wrong side of the equation and became kind of the new domestic and international enemy in the hemisphere,” he said.

With the demise of the DFS, the CIA helped shape the creation of its successor: the Center for Investigation and National Security, or CISEN. It was at this critical juncture in U.S.-Mexico security relations that a young CISEN officer named Genaro García Luna stepped onto the scene.

Hope, himself a former CISEN officer, said the former security secretary is best understood as a “career spook.” Still in his early 30s, with a background in a mechanical engineering and an interest in reshaping large institutions, García Luna made a name for himself spearheading two interagency initiatives in the 1990s, one focused on kidnapping and the other on counterterrorism, which, according to Hope, “was basically code for fighting left-wing guerillas.”

Following the 2000 election of Vicente Fox, García Luna was tapped to create a new federal police force, the Agencia Federal de Investigación. AFI, as it was commonly known, was modeled after the FBI, with U.S. law enforcement officials on the ground working closely with García Luna in its creation. Those ties tightened after the September 11 attacks, when FBI agents around the world were tasked with running down leads on potential follow-up plots, and the U.S. began its long march into the so-called global war on terrorism.

Though presented as a progressive step toward law enforcement professionalization, AFI, under the leadership of García Luna, was not without controversy. In 2005, agents under García Luna’s command staged a fake kidnapping “rescue” for TV crews, causing a scandal that rose to the Supreme Court. Later that year, Reuters obtained a copy of an attorney general report, which found that nearly 1,500 of García Luna’s 7,000 agents were under investigation. At the time the story was published, a group of AFI agents had just been arrested for kidnapping and murdering four alleged cartel hitmen. Several of the agents were said to be working for Guzmán’s Sinaloa organization.

Despite the echoes of the past, when the DFS managed the Mexican drug trafficking scene, García Luna emerged unscathed from the controversies surrounding AFI and his close working relationship with the U.S. government carried on. Appointed by Calderon to the cabinet-level position of secretary of public security in 2006, he was among a handful of powerful Mexican national security officials who pushed a militarized effort to combat drug trafficking organizations. His involvement was viewed positively among U.S. officials, who at the time were pulling together support for the campaign. “Garcia Luna has been a trusted liaison, partner and friend of the FBI since his days at the [Federal Preventive Police],” a December 2006 cable from the U.S. embassy in Mexico City reported. While “his personal reputation is very good,” the cable went on to say, “that of some of his underlings has not been as favorable.”

With the Calderon government in place, the Bush administration launched a billion-dollar security package, known as the Mérida Initiative, that opened up a level of coordination and cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and intelligence agencies unlike anything in recent history. García Luna was at the center of it all.

In some media accounts, the secretary was cast as the hard-nosed enforcer taking the fight to the narco kingpins terrorizing the country. A 2008 profile of “Mexico’s top cop” in the New York Times Magazine reported that with his “square jaw, squat build and crew cut,” García Luna was seen as “something of a wunderkind” during his early days in the intelligence services. Later on, he was described telling a group of police officers that he would never protect a criminal organization. Months after the profile was published, Proceso, a Mexican news magazine, offered a much different picture, reporting that García Luna was in fact very interested in protecting drug trafficking organizations, and that he was actively doing so for the Sinaloa cartel.

It wasn’t just journalists raising concerns. In November 2008, as violence unleashed by the drug war continued to surge, the U.S. embassy in Mexico sent a cable detailing an anti-corruption campaign that had revealed “narco-infiltration into the upper echelons of law enforcement community,” with much of the focus trained on García Luna’s subordinates. “The real loser in all this may be Garcia Luna,” the cable noted. While not personally implicated, the State Department reported, he would “have to work hard to overcome the perception that he is either oblivious to what goes on around him or tolerates his underlings’ less-than-savory activities.”

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon, center, followed by Mexico's Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, left, shakes hands with Federal Police officers during a ceremony to designate June 2 as the Federal Police Day in Mexico City, Thursday, June 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

Mexico President Felipe Calderón, center, followed by Genaro García Luna, left, shakes hands with Federal Police officers during a ceremony in Mexico City on June 2, 2011.

Photo: Alexandre Meneghini/AP

Cops and Kingpins

García Luna’s ability to weather controversies and corruption allegations extended beyond the Bush years. In December 2009, he met with John Brennan. At the time, Brennan was President Obama’s chief adviser on homeland security and counterterrorism. He would later serve as director of the CIA, where he had spent the bulk of his career, and go on to become one of the most influential national security officials of the Obama era. “Genaro Garcia Luna struck all of the right chords in his expansive survey of the challenges that face Mexico and the U.S. in combating organized crime,” a State Department cable said of the meeting between the two men.

In the years that followed, the already growing collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico expanded to include “small numbers of CIA operatives and American civilian military employees” setting up shop at a Mexican military base, and U.S. forces “sending drones deep into Mexican territory to gather intelligence that helps locate major traffickers and follow their networks.” In a move drawn from the war on terror playbook that would define much of the Obama-Brennan years, U.S. military and intelligence agencies supported a Mexican campaign to eliminate “high value targets” on Mexican soil. By March 2011, the New York Times reported that the joint operations had led to the capture or killing of “at least 20 high-profile drug traffickers.” The so-called “kingpin strategy” would later come under withering criticism, as it fractured criminal organizations into warring factions, leading to increased violence and instability in communities across Mexico, while at the same time failing to reduce drug trafficking or threats to the general public.

Even as he enjoyed direct access to the most powerful officials and agencies in the U.S., allegations of protection provided to the Sinaloa cartel continued to follow García Luna. In 2010, award-winning Mexican investigative journalist and author Anabel Hernández, published a bestselling book examining the thin line between the Mexican underworld and security agencies; García Luna, and his alleged protection of Sinaloan cartel business, was a dominant thread. That same year, an investigation by NPR found that members or associates of the Sinaloa cartel were significantly underrepresented in federal arrest records under the Calderón administration.

Earl Anthony Wayne, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2011 to 2015, said that when he arrived in Mexico City, García Luna “was presented as one of the key government partners that we had to work with.” The Mexican security secretary had been lauded for efforts to increase the institutional credibility of the federal police and bolster its ranks, Wayne told me, as well his creation of a massive database for tracking crimes and his general interest in promoting the professionalization of Mexican law enforcement. At the same time, Wayne acknowledged, “It is true that as we worked with him it became clear that there were certain groups he was more enthusiastic about going after than other groups, and so people in the U.S. law enforcement structure would work with other partners to try to tackle some of the groups that the federal police didn’t seem so enthusiastic about going after.”

There were other issues as well. In late 2012, a pair of CIA employees were ambushed and wounded by gunmen as they rode in an SUV with diplomatic plates to a military shooting range south of Mexico City. The shooters were Mexican federal police officers. “In that case, García Luna was very resistant to investigating the federal police who were involved,” Wayne said. Ultimately, he explained, the embassy had to go through “other channels” to get García Luna to take the matter seriously, “including his boss” — the president.  Twelve police officers were eventually sentenced in the case in 2019, nearly seven years after the fact.

The day after García Luna left government, in December 2012, Proceso quoted an unnamed DEA agent who claimed, “The intelligence services have a large collection of reports gathered in Mexico and the United States, that point to possible ties between Garcia Luna and drug traffickers,” and that American authorities had declined to act on the information, “out of respect to [Mexico] and because he was the direct contact with the United States.”

The existence of “possible ties,” as the DEA source described them, reflected the kind of problem U.S. officials have long faced in dealing with the intersection of drug trafficking and the powerful Mexican officials they align themselves with. While reporting and allegations swirled around García Luna, confirming facts sufficient to build a case against him was far from simple. This was a man who was “a trusted interlocutor of the president,” Wayne explained, who at least outwardly appeared to be taking steps to strengthen the institutions the U.S. government had thrown its support behind. “He was one of the partners we had.”

“Tracking corruption of senior level Mexican officials is a challenge,” Wayne went on to say. During his tenure, the former ambassador said, the Mexican government had begun work on vetting lower and mid-ranking security officials, “but they did not vet the very top people in either administration on a regular basis.” Having ascended from deep within the Mexican national security state over multiple decades, García Luna very much met the definition of a top Mexican official, Wayne noted. “He was around for a very long time.”

In this courtroom sketch, defense attorney Cesar de Castro, left, Mexico's former top security official Genaro Garcia Luna, center, and a court interpreter, appear for an arraignment hearing in Brooklyn federal court Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, in New York. Garcia Luna pleaded not guilty to charges he accepted a fortune in drug-money bribes from kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's notorious Sinaloa cartel. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams)

From left, defense attorney Cesar de Castro, Genaro García Luna, and a court interpreter appear for an arraignment hearing in Brooklyn federal court on Jan. 3, 2020, in New York. García Luna pleaded not guilty to charges that he accepted a fortune in drug money bribes from Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa drug cartel.

Illustration: Elizabeth Williams/AP

A New Narrative

García Luna relocated to Miami following the changing of presidential administrations in Mexico. The years of corruption allegations did not stop the U.S. government from granting its former drug war ally legal residence. According to one former U.S. federal law enforcement official I spoke to, García Luna was given a difficult-to-obtain visa reserved for immigrants with “extraordinary ability,” sometimes referred to as an “Einstein visa.”

The extent to which the long-standing allegations against García Luna were examined before the visa was granted is unclear. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to answer questions about his immigration status in the U.S. Wayne, the former ambassador, said that if there were concerns about García Luna’s desire to relocate to the U.S., “it was not an issue that rose to my level as a political issue.”

“It just didn’t come up as controversial to me,” he said. “That does not mean some people did not object to it. I just don’t know.”

Once in Florida, García Luna set up a private intelligence and security company called GL & Associates Consulting, or GLAC. The heart of the venture was the GLAC Index, software designed to assess risks to posed nations or private sector entities. Among the advisors listed on García Luna’s board were former ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials from the U.S., Colombia, and Spain, including Jose Rodriguez, the former director of the CIA’s clandestine service, known for his role in ordering the destruction of tapes depicting the torture of detainees in CIA custody. Positions on the board were unpaid, Rodriguez told Reuters in December, adding in a statement that “those of us who know Garcia Luna are shocked by his recent arrest.”

With some notable exceptions, García Luna managed to maintain a low profile while living in the U.S. That changed last year, when a Sinaloa cartel witness in Guzmán’s criminal trial claimed that he had given García Luna briefcases stuffed with at least $3 million. García Luna denied the allegations. Eleven months later, he was arrested in Dallas.

The indictment, which the New York Times reported was “a direct result” of the testimony in the El Chapo trial, claimed that on three occasions over the past 18 years, García Luna had conspired to traffic cocaine. Then, in 2018, he allegedly lied in a statement to U.S. immigration officials about having never been involved in criminal activity. In a December 11 letter to the court, prosecutors elaborated on the allegations against García Luna, claiming that “several former high-ranking members of the Sinaloa Cartel” had “provided a wealth of information about bribes paid” to the former security secretary and that “numerous other cooperating witnesses” interviewed by the government had confirmed that García Luna had received “tens of millions of dollars over several years.” Financial records, government lawyers said, would show that García Luna “had amassed a personal fortune of millions of dollars that was inconsistent with a civil servant’s salary in Mexico.”

In a court hearing last week, García Luna’s attorney, Cesar de Castro, revealed that after his arrest in Texas, his client was moved to an isolation unit where he was held in 23-hour lockdown conditions. He remained there for weeks before being flown to New York. Once in New York, de Castro said, García Luna was again moved to an isolation unit. The strict detention measures, he went on to say, had made it nearly impossible for García Luna to communicate with his family or counsel. What’s more, de Castro told U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, the defense had recently learned that financial authorities in Mexico had seized García Luna’s personal and business accounts, making it difficult to provide financial information regarding his client.

Cogan, who presided over the El Chapo trial, granted a government request to designate the García Luna prosecution as a “complex” case, on account of the voluminous financial records and protected national security information prosecutors plan to draw from. The judge ordered the government to begin pulling together and turning over that evidence to the defense as soon as possible. Standing outside court, de Castro told reporters that García Luna “adamantly denies that he accepted any bribes 15 years ago” and that “he intends to go to trial.” I asked how much of the government’s evidence he had seen so far.

“The government has not produced a single document,” de Castro told me. “Mr. García Luna has been in custody now for more than a month, and we don’t have any of the evidence.”

A potential glimpse at the case the government is building against García Luna emerged Friday, when the same prosecutors pursuing the former security secretary revealed charges against a man named Ivan Reyes Arzate for drug trafficking. As the former commander of the Mexican Federal Police’s Sensitive Investigative Unit, Reyes Arzate “was the principal [sic] point of contact for information sharing between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement personnel assigned to the SIU,” prosecutors wrote. In letter sent to the court Friday, prosecutors wrote that “the government expects some of the evidence to overlap in [the] Garcia Luna and Reyes Arzate” cases. Reyes Arzate’s highly vetted and supposedly elite unit was implicated in a massacre in northern Mexico in 2011.

Depending on the direction it takes, a García Luna trial could provide a rare glimpse into the murky world of U.S.-Mexico drug war collaboration, a world often overshadowed by made-for-TV narratives of murderous kingpins and the lawmen who chase them. “I don’t think it will get to that point but if it does, my guess is the obvious legal strategy for him would be to try to put the U.S. intelligence community on trial,” Hope, the former Mexican intelligence officer, said.

For Zavala, whose forthcoming book retells the history of drug trafficking through the language of national security used by the governments of the U.S. and Mexico, the entire episode feels like a depressing rerun. “It seems to me that we are trapped in this loop, where we’re going to be condemned to this endless horizon of drug traffickers that rise and fall and their corresponding police officers that are heroes and then later on are crooks,” he said. Ending the prohibitionist policies that undergird the drug war would be step in the right direction, he said, but insufficient to break the cycle Mexico has found itself in. “The national security paradigm can shift again, and it has in many ways already,” he said. Look at the state of migration politics in Mexico right now under the López Obrador administration, Zavala argued. “While they’re rejecting, rightly so, the outdated drug militarization, they’re embracing the anti-immigrant militarization. And that, I think, is a tragic mistake because it plays right into the hands of this ongoing national security paradigm.”

“The real answer, the only way that Mexico can undo or at least be able to undo the dominance of the national security agenda, is to take it as a whole,” Zavala said. “We are not going to undo this by simply getting rid of the narrative of drug trafficking, while allowing the U.S. to tell us a new narrative.”

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