High-Stakes Prosecution of U.S.-Backed Mexican Drug War Commander Set for Trial

The development in Genaro García Luna’s case in New York comes amid rising concerns over DEA operations abroad.

Then-Mexico's Secretary of Public Safety Genaro Garcia Luna attends a press conference in Mexico City on Oct. 8, 2010. Photo: AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File

A trial date has been set in the high-profile prosecution of a former top-ranking Mexican federal police official once considered the United States’ leading ally in the war on drugs. Genaro García Luna, the former head of public security in Mexico who was arrested in 2019 on charges of cocaine trafficking, listened in from jail Wednesday as Judge Brian M. Cogan of the Eastern District of New York set a tentative October 24, 2022, date for the potentially historic trial.

Noting the complexity and sensitivity of the case, which would be roughly comparable to an FBI director accused of colluding with the mafia, Cogan set backup dates for early January 2023. Federal prosecutors have accused García Luna of accepting millions of dollars in bribes to allow Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera’s Sinaloa drug cartel to “operate with impunity in Mexico” for more than a decade, while at the same time working side by side with the most powerful officials in the U.S. national security and law enforcement apparatus. García Luna has denied the charges.

Given García Luna’s extensive U.S. government connections, his trial has the potential to peel back the secrecy surrounding drug war cooperation at the highest levels of the U.S. and Mexican governments and upend commonly held misperceptions of the Mexican drug war as a simple two-sided struggle between drug traffickers and law enforcement alone.

Anticipating a two-month trial, government lawyers have compiled more than 1 million pages of documents related to the case and are currently working with the defense team and the court to navigate the volume of classified materials included in the evidence. García Luna’s defense attorney, César de Castro, told the court Wednesday that the document count does not include all of the audio that government investigators have turned over in the case.

“It is substantial,” de Castro said, though, he added, most of the audio material turned over thus far does not appear relevant to his client’s case. “The majority of the discovery that we have reviewed does not relate to Mr. García Luna but it’s still difficult to get through.”

The movement in the García Luna case comes at a particularly tumultuous time for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the nation’s lead agency prosecuting the drug war abroad. In August, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice released a blistering 54-page audit of the DEA’s support for foreign law enforcement units, including its Sensitive Investigative Units, or SIU — ostensibly elite vetted components entrusted with some of the agency’s most sensitive secrets. As head of public security, García Luna oversaw the Mexican Federal Police, which was home to the nation’s SIU during his tenure.

In Mexico, past cases of compromised SIU operations include the infamous 2011 Allende massacre, in which an entire town was virtually wiped out by organized criminal groups operating under the eye of Mexican federal law enforcement and military units. In Honduras, a DEA-vetted and led police unit killed four unarmed civilians in 2012. Inspectors general for the State and Justice departments later found that the DEA lied to Congress about the circumstances of the killings, according to a 424-page report published in 2017.

“Despite serious incidents associated with these units, the DEA has not performed any program-level reviews or assessed its oversight structure to determine what systemic improvements may have been needed to mitigate the risk of similar incidents occurring in the future,” the OIG investigators found.

In response to the inspector general report, the DEA announced in late August that it was conducting “a comprehensive review” of its “international operations and foreign footprint.” Following the announcement, the Associated Press reported that U.S. authorities had extradited a Colombian SIU official on charges of selling law enforcement information to organized crime; the official, 37-year-old Juan Pablo Mosquera, pleaded guilty to the charges earlier this month. Top DEA officials themselves have also faced charges of international drug trafficking and trading intelligence for money. Last September, veteran agent Jose I. Irizarry pleaded guilty to 19 federal counts involving drug trafficking out of Colombia, including bank fraud, money laundering, and the sale of sensitive law enforcement information.

The García Luna case is by far the most significant of the various drug-warrior-as-drug-trafficker prosecutions before the Justice Department right now.


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

From his perch as head of Mexico’s federal police and later as public security chief for the entire country, García Luna wielded unparalleled power during a critical period in the mid-2000s, when former President Felipe Calderón declared a war on drug trafficking organizations and the U.S. government provided unprecedented levels of intelligence, security assistance, and funding to support the campaign. Depending on the extent to which sensitive materials might surface, a García Luna trial could provide rare, behind-the-scenes insight into a conflict that has cost more than 400,000 lives, absorbed billions of dollars in U.S.-government funding, and done little to curtail the illicit flow of drugs into the United States in any meaningful way.

Groomed for his role as drug war czar by U.S. officials, García Luna routinely met with top U.S. law enforcement and national security figures during the Bush and Obama administrations and was often painted as Washington’s most reliable ally in the war on organized crime. Those relationships could create a double-edged effect at trial. Damaging material regarding García Luna’s conduct may support the Justice Department’s claims, but it could also point back at the government working to prosecute him and may create an incentive for prosecutors to keep their case as tightly focused as possible.

Last week, the former head of Mexico’s SIU pleaded guilty to charges of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from cocaine traffickers linked to Guzmán Loera’s Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for information on law enforcement operations. “From 2003 to 2016, Reyes Arzate was a Mexican Federal Police Officer assigned to SIU,” the department said in a statement. “In 2008, he was appointed SIU Commander, making him its highest-ranking officer and principal point of contact for information sharing between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement personnel assigned to the SIU.” The Azarte case was also heard in Judge Cogan’s courtroom, as was Guzmán Loera’s conviction in 2019. In court filings, attorneys for the Eastern District have described the three cases as “presumptively related.”

For a time, prosecutors out of the New York office were pursuing a fourth major drug trafficking case involving top-level Mexican security officials. In October 2020, the office spearheaded the arrest of former Mexican military general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda at a Los Angeles airport, sparking an international incident that went on for several months.

The administration of Mexican President Andres López Obrador accused the DEA of fabricating evidence against the former general, and he was released in January. Mexican officials then proceeded to publish hundreds of pages from the U.S. government’s investigation online. Soon after, U.S. officials described the binational security relationship as “paralyzed.” Earlier this month, top officials from both countries met to unveil a new framework of cooperation on matters of law enforcement and security.

Whether the DEA changes its ways in light of the García Luna case and others like it remains to be seen. As the Justice Department’s August audit noted: “The DEA has experienced various negative and highly publicized incidents involving these units, which highlight the importance of program safeguards and the reality of the risks associated with these partnerships. However, the DEA has not strategically or programmatically evaluated these incidents involving foreign law enforcement units to identify lessons learned and enhance oversight.”

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