For the Beltrán Leyva Organization, one of Mexico’s most notorious cartels, collecting cocaine from their Colombian suppliers was supposed to be a straightforward process. The Colombians would travel to international waters near Mexico, where they would meet Beltran Leyva powerboats and submarines. The cocaine haul was loaded onto Mexican cartel vessels and brought to shore.
For years, everything worked smoothly. Then something went wrong.
Between 2007 and 2008, for a period of six to seven months, the powerboats and submarines were intercepted by U.S. officials. The cocaine was confiscated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, leaving the Beltran Leyva Organization and the brothers at its helm without their precious supply. The brothers were certain: There had to be a snitch.
Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the leader of the group, ordered his lieutenants to root out the leaker, and sought the help of corrupt, high-level Federal Police officials. The Mexican officials arrived at a meeting with the narcos, holding a cardboard binder with a photograph and the identity of the snitch: a Colombian man working as a DEA informant. Enraged, Beltrán Leyva ordered the informant be kidnapped, tortured, interrogated, and killed.
As with many of his diktats, Beltrán Leyva’s orders were followed to a T.
“It’s a massive betrayal of the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico and the law enforcement cooperation.”
According to testimony in an American court, one of the key, yet little noted, figures implicated in the killing was a top-ranking Mexican security official: Genaro García Luna.
A so-called architect of the drug war, García Luna oversaw the Federal Police, prisons, and a vast intelligence network as President Felipe Calderón’s secretary of public security. Not only was he Calderón’s right-hand man, but Washington also viewed García Luna as its trusted ally in the fight against drug trafficking.
According to court records reviewed by The Intercept, which were first reported by Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández, a top-ranking former cartel member pointed the finger at García Luna as one of the officials responsible for leaking the informant’s identity. (García Luna’s legal team did not respond to a request for comment.)
This week, García Luna’s trial on charges of collaborating with the Sinaloa and Beltrán Leyva cartels got underway in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn. Among the potential embarrassing revelations for Mexican and American officials, García Luna’s role in the murder of the DEA informant may arise: The narco who testified in U.S. court about communication between the killers and García Luna is expected to testify in the former top cop’s case as well. (Federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York declined to comment.)
Among other drug-related charges, García Luna is being hit with the so-called kingpin law: engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. (García Luna has denied the charges.) While he is not being charged with murder, the allegation of tipping off cartels to the DEA informant could fit under the statute. The indictment accuses García Luna of giving a cartel “access to sensitive law enforcement information about law enforcement operations.”
“It’s a massive betrayal of the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico and the law enforcement cooperation,” said Nathan P. Jones, a nonresident scholar in drug policy and Mexico studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Informants are American law enforcement’s most closely-guarded secrets.”
DEA’s Mexican “Allies”
García Luna’s alleged role in the DEA informant’s death came to light during the sentencing of another Mexican security official accused of crimes in the U.S.: Ivan Reyes Arzate, also known as “La Reina.”
According to over 200 pages of court records, La Reina was a Federal Police officer from 2003 to 2016. He rose through the ranks and in 2008, was promoted to commander of the Federal Police’s Sensitive Investigative Unit, also known as the SIU. La Reina’s top boss, as with all Federal Police officials, was the secretary of public security, García Luna.
The SIU was the premier Federal Police unit working with the DEA in Mexico — or it was supposed to be, having been specially created for that purpose. All SIU members, including La Reina, received special training from the DEA in Quantico, Virginia. The DEA relied on the SIU for operations, surveillance, and high-profile arrests.
“We have very special or specific people that we work with who we have tried to vet and make sure that we can trust them,” one DEA agent said in court, “because of the corruption that we know sometimes exists in those other countries and around the world.”
Hardly reliable, the SIU leaked like a sieve, with horrific consequences. In 2011, cartel gunmen massacred an entire town, Allende, on the southern side of the Mexican border. ProPublica reported that the village was targeted on account of an SIU leak. That year, the Justice Department released a scathing report highlighting problems with SIUs around the world. (In 2022, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador shuttered the SIU program.)
La Reina personified corruption in the SIU. In 2017, he was indicted and later sentenced in Chicago for providing sensitive information to organized crime in Mexico in exchange for bribes. Last year, he was sentenced to another 10 years in prison in a Brooklyn federal court.
La Reina was caught in Mexico after American agents discovered he was providing sensitive surveillance information to a cartel. When a DEA agent and close friend confronted him in a hotel room in Mexico City, La Reina broke down crying, admitting his secretive cartel alliances.
“It was like getting punched in the stomach,” a DEA agent involved in the case testified. “It was very, very difficult to hear that — to know that one of the most wanted men in the world and most violent, notorious criminals in the history of drug trafficking was talking to our SIU commander and that there was a relationship that they had.”
La Reina flew with his DEA friend to Chicago, where he turned himself in.
During La Reina’s sentencing hearing, Sergio “El Grande” Villarreal Barragán took the stand. El Grande, who owes his nickname to his 6-foot-8 stature, was a high-ranking narco with the Beltrán Leyva Organization.
The Beltrán Leyva Organization had been aligned with the Sinaloa cartel, forming a powerful drug trafficking monopoly called “The Federation.” They officially split, however, in 2008, after one of their leaders was arrested, seemingly at the behest of Sinaloa leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who was found guilty by an American court of cartel-related charges in 2019. A brutal war between the two organizations broke out.
According to court testimony from El Chapo’s trial, during this time, García Luna was taking bribes from both organizations. One of El Chapo’s top lieutenants alleged that the Sinaloa cartel gave García Luna up to $6 million, while Beltrán Leyva gave him $50 million. (The Beltrán Leyva Organization was notorious for allegedly paying off public officials and police throughout Mexico, including a federal anti-drug prosecutor and the head of Interpol.)
In 2007 and 2008, when the Beltrán Leyva Organization’s cocaine was being seized by the DEA, the cartel was on high alert. According to El Grande’s testimony, he attended a meeting with high-ranking narcos and a “very high official in the federal police” to discover how the drugs were being intercepted. The official, he said, was Luis Cárdenas Palomino, one of García Luna’s co-defendants, who is currently incarcerated in Mexico.
In his testimony, El Grande says that, in Miami, the DEA had detained a Colombian man but then released him “for purposes of providing information regarding drug shipments.”
The Beltrán Leyva leadership then met with La Reina, Cárdenas Palomino, and other officials at a ranch in central Mexico. Cárdenas Palomino told the group he had spoken with his boss and good friend, García Luna. (The DEA, lawyers for La Reina, Cárdenas Palomino, and El Grande did not respond to request for comment.)
“Now, at that meeting, Cárdenas Palomino told the group that he had spoken to his compadre, Genaro García Luna?” the attorney asked.
“That’s correct, sir,” El Grande replied.
“And he had been informed that there was a Colombian informant working within the Beltrán Leyva cartel?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“And then Cárdenas Palomino provided the informant’s name and nickname; is that right?
“That’s correct, sir.”
El Grande also said that García Luna accessed the informant’s identity through a Mexican Federal Police officer stationed in Colombia.
Arturo Beltrán Leyva, seeing the informant’s photograph, ordered his lieutenants to kill the man. Two high-ranking Beltrán Leyva lieutenants kidnapped the informant from a city in central Mexico and tortured him.
“And you learned that the informant admitted he’d been arrested in Miami and was cooperating?” an attorney asked El Grande in the hearing.
“That’s correct, sir,” El Grande replied.
Both El Grande and La Reina are expected to testify in García Luna’s trial, along with other former top narcos from Sinaloa and Beltrán Leyva.
In a ruling on Thursday, the judge in the García Luna case ruled that the former security chief’s attorneys could raise inconsistencies in El Grande’s past statements to authorities — presumably an effort to discredit the potential witness. What those inconsistencies refer to, however, remains unclear.