Explosive U.S. Case Claims Mexican General Told Cartel, ‘To Fuck You Guys Over They Need an Order From Me’
Mexican official says the battle over Cienfuegos is becoming their “Cuban missile crisis” as 750-page dossier paints detailed picture of his alleged entanglement with a cartel.
CALI, Colombia—What began as a high-profile U.S. investigation of a top Mexican general has now morphed into an international incident that threatens law enforcement relations between the two countries.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has accused the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Justice Department of “fabricating” their drug-trafficking case against retired general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. Earlier this month, Mexican prosecutors dismissed all charges brought against Cienfuegos by U.S. officials.
AMLO also ordered the DOJ’s classified dossier on General Cienfuegos to be publicly released. The DOJ claimed that was in violation of the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty [MLAT] between the two countries, and the move caused U.S. officials to threaten an end to sensitive information-sharing with Mexico, thus creating an immediate security crisis for newly inaugurated President Joe Biden.
At the heart of the dispute is what the DEA says is a damning portrait of Cienfuegos, based on its detailed investigation of the general. The Daily Beast has analysed the full report which includes hundreds of text messages, photos of weapons, tortured victims, and narcotics.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, told The Daily Beast. “The investigation lasted several years and General Cienfuegos was not the initial target, but eventually fell into the conspiracy.”
As part of their defense of the decision to acquit him, Mexican prosecutors subsequently released their own investigation of Cienfuegos, albeit with more than 500 pages of text redacted, leading to additional confusion as to their findings.
Nevertheless, AMLO has continued to double down on discrediting the DEA’s case, telling reporters that: “It’s not possible for an investigation to be carried out with so much irresponsibility, without support, and for us to remain silent.”
According to Dr. Robert Bunker, research director at the security analytics firm Futures, “AMLO is under the delusional impression that if he loudly promotes the ‘fake news’ and ‘fabricated charges’ narrative he can discredit the detailed evidence collected during the Cienfuegos-Zepeda investigation.”
AMLO has become increasingly dependent on the army for security and even construction projects, leading some critics to claim that he bowed to a powerful military cabal that saw General Cienfuegos as untouchable. But there has also been pushback against that narrative.
A senior Mexican official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, described the situation as “our Cuban missile crisis” with the U.S.
“I’m sad to say so, but it is hard to believe that [DEA] got us into this complicated legal and diplomatic mess over such a weak case,” the official said. “No financial records. No witnesses. No voice recordings. So what else are we to do [but declare the general innocent]?”
The DOJ continues to stand by its original findings, stating that: “A U.S. federal grand jury analyzed that material and other evidence and concluded that criminal charges against Cienfuegos were supported by the evidence.”
Cienfuegos was the National Defense Minister under the previous administration. He was arrested in the U.S. in October on four counts of drug trafficking, but Mexico threatened to end cooperation with the DEA unless he was released to stand trial at home. Instead all charges were dropped after just five days by Mexico’s National Prosecutors Office, prompting a countersuit by a leading Mexican human rights NGO, as well as headlines about Mexico degenerating into a narco-state.
“The clear message from AMLO is that if you are a corrupt official [the Mexican government] will protect you and punish the U.S. agency that made the case against you,” Vigil said. “This will translate to a horrific situation of more violence in Mexico and more drugs coming to the U.S.”
“As long as I am here, you will be free.”
The DOJ’s full case file amounts to 751 pages, most of which contain transcripts of intercepted Blackberry text messages, though there are also texted photos of pistols and rifles, grenades, luxury cars, and victims held at gunpoint and showing signs of torture.
The DEA investigation alleges that the texts reflect more than two years of communications [2015-2017] between General Cienfuegos and members of the H-2 cartel, including Juan Francisco Patrón-Sánchez, who was the leader of the crime group at that time.
In the opening letter of the affidavit, the DOJ declares that: “The evidence will show that [Cienfuegos] received bribes from the Patrón-Sánchez organization in exchange for providing protection, safe passage of weapons and narcotics [and] information about military and law enforcement operations in Mexico.”
In most of the exchanges, Cienfuegos is referred to as “Padrino” [Godfather], but at one point the intermediary between Patrón-Sánchez and the general clearly refers to him by name, spelled phonetically as “Salbador Sinfuego Sepeda.”
Patrón-Sánchez's go-between in much of the correspondence was Daniel Silva Gárate, who later became head of the H-2 cartel after Patrón-Sánchez was gunned down by Mexican Marines (who operate independently from Cienfuegos’ branch of the military).
Some of the highlights from the intercepted messages are as follows:
- In response to his boss’s request for protection while running cocaine shipments from Colombia, Silva-Gárate quotes Padrino as saying: “As long as I am here you will be free” and “they will never have strong operations against you.”
- A little later, Silva-Gárate quotes Padrino as saying that in the past he took money from Arturo Beltrán-Leyva, another notorious trafficker, but that Beltrán-Leyva “got him into a problem and so he had to stop doing him favors and protecting him.”
- In December of 2015, Silva-Gárate helped broker a deal between his boss and Cienfuegos for a 500-kilogram shipment of cocaine to be loaded in Panama. The deal included specific transportation details, with Patrón-Sánchez telling Cienfuegos that “I only need a tuna boat or a large boat that’s coming from there to Mexico [and] I’ll send someone to receive it in the open sea.”
- In addition to transcriptions of texts, the dossier includes multiple screenshots purportedly sent from Cienfuegos’ own phone, including one from April of 2016 that reads: “I have arranged your freedom from here, from the top . . . I won't let you guys out of my hands. We are a team. To fuck you guys over they need an order from me.”
- A few months later, in June of 2016, Cienfuegos allegedly offered to use the armed forces to target rival drug lords, including Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, aka “El Mencho,” who was the personal nemesis of Patrón-Sánchez: “I will put in jail all of them together. The one who likes to take down helicopters [Mencho], I already sent the order to kill him and from that arrangement we can get something good. That way you guys can move more in Sinaloa and help me try and arrange things so that you can take more land and more personnel. . .”
- Cienfuegos also allegedly shared information about troop movements, writing in August 2016 that he would be sending in 300 soldiers to the state of Nayarit, where the H-2 cartel was based, but “only for a military exposition after August 20, so that you don’t get scared.”
- And he promised to conquer an undisclosed community on behalf of H-2: “The town will have a coup d'etat, and I will be in charge of all that scandal, but I need for [you] to help me with 2 things by tomorrow. I need 10 or whatever [amount] your uncle could contribute so I could move things.”
In addition to the written messages, there are also photos that show AR-15 assault rifles on display with 100-round drum magazines, semi-automatic pistols, and packets of cocaine and other narcotics. There are also several images of the cartels’ victims: a man prone in handcuffs, another with the barrel of an assault rifle pressed to his throat. Some show signs of torture, including a man with his eyes bound in duct-tape and blood streaming down his face, and another of a woman who appears to have suffered head trauma.
“The H2 cartel was known for its hyperviolence and the photos of their tortured victims bear it out,” said the DEA’s Vigil. “They take great joy in passing around those photos.”
“Treachery in the cartels means sure death”
Prosecutors’ claims for Cienfuegos exoneration rest upon a controversial statement put forth by his defense—namely, that the H-2 cartel’s go-between, Silva-Gárate, duped his boss into believing that he had a relationship with Cienfuegos in order to extort money from Patrón-Sánchez.
The evidence for this claim rests partly a few errors in Silva-Gárate’s reports to Patrón-Sánchez, who was also his uncle. For example, in one message Silva-Gárate makes a reference to an aircraft bought as a gift for Cienfuego’s “son,” though the general’s children are all female.
According to the anonymous official, there are discrepancies between the general’s whereabouts on certain dates when Silva-Gárate claimed to be meeting with him. The official also said that the slang-ridden tone of the messages portrayed in the screenshots and transcripts don’t jibe with a man of the general’s background.
“The texts are written by someone with a primary or secondary education. They are full of grammatical errors and don't appear to be written by the general,” who holds a master’s degree.
Futures research director Bunker said the entirety of the evidence outweighs any such potential disparities due to the “totality of the text exchanges and the pattern of an ongoing criminal conspiracy that they represent.”
“A key point of evidence can be potentially discredited in the courts—a criminal conspiracy, composed of layers upon layers of evidence, is a very different matter,” Bunker said.
Retired DEA agent Vigil called the move to shift the blame to the H-2’s intermediary “a complete distortion” and pointed to the detailed promises that were made by the Godfather in exchange for payments.
“Patrón-Sánchez would have discovered that he was being duped very quickly if drug loads were seized, which would have happened without the protection of Cienfuegos,” Vigil said, and added, “I doubt that the nephew would have put his life at risk—family or not, treachery in the cartels means sure death.”
Enmanuel Gallardo, an independent journalist from Mexico City who specializes in cartel coverage, said that based on the whole sum of evidence he does “believe there is something shady with the general.”
But Gallardo also said he was disappointed with the DEA’s overall efforts. “I was very excited when this first happened. I thought this was something historical. But then when I read the accusation I began to wonder how the DEA could have made so many mistakes. If the American government wants to accuse General Cienfuegos, they should have run a better investigation.”
In any case, the Cienfuegos debacle has caused a great rift between Mexico and the U.S. In addition to charging Mexico with an international treaty violation, the DOJ has also threatened to relaunch its own investigation against Cienfuegos, and to curtail intelligence sharing in the future.
The latter measure, in particular, will likely be seen as excellent news for organized crime groups on both sides of the border.
“The cartels must be fought with a great international intelligence cooperation efforts,” said Raúl Benítez-Manaut, a political scientist at the Autonomous National University of Mexico.
“Nationalist or unilateral positions are not correct, and will surely be doomed to failure.”