CALI, Colombia—It’s called El Sindicado, or the Syndicate. Allegedly, it’s a “secret brotherhood” within Mexico’s military that also wields some control over the civilian government.
How much control? Apparently enough that the cabal of elite four-star generals successfully forced the release of General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, a former national defense secretary, from U.S. custody earlier this month.
Cienfuegos had been arrested on drug trafficking charges in Los Angeles on Oct. 15, and DEA agents and prosecutors had built a strong case against him based on intercepted calls and text messages from his phone. The assembled evidence revealed that El Padrino [the Godfather], as Cienfuegos was known to his underworld contacts, had helped Mexico’s H-2 cartel move thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, and crystal meth into the U.S. in exchange for bribes.
But sources say the powerful cabal of retired and active-duty generals—which includes other, previous defense secretaries like Cienfuegos himself—had begun working to undermine the DEA’s case and secure El Padrino’s return to Mexico since the day of his arrest.
Within hours of his capture in California, where he had been vacationing with his family, the Syndicate had sent a representative to knock on the door of current defense chief Luis Crecencia Sandoval, according to Mexico City-based news site Emeequis, which first broke the story.
This cabal’s rep is identified in the Emeequis report as an officer with experience fighting the cartels in northern Mexico, as well as a close friend of Sandoval. And the message he delivered was that the highest-ranking commanders of the army “were not going to sit with their arms crossed while a foreign government tore their credibility to shreds.”
Sandoval was instructed to carry this message to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often known by the initials AMLO), and in the coming weeks similar dictums followed. The generals’ push increased after Cienfuegos was transferred to a maximum security prison in New York, and eventually turned to outright blackmail.
“[The Syndicate] exerted a very strong pressure on AMLO so that he, in turn, would make Trump free Cienfuegos,” said Dr. Raúl Benítez-Manaut, a security expert with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
That pressure included threats to “return to their barracks and no longer cooperate with the United States,” Benítez-Manaut said.
After initially siding with the DEA, AMLO was allegedly forced to concede by his generals. His administration communicated the threat of ending bilateral cooperation for law enforcement to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, ultimately resulting in Cienfuegos being returned to Mexican soil with all charges against him dropped.
A Corrupt “Military Junta”
The incident highlights how the growing militarization of Mexico’s drug war has empowered the armed forces while diminishing the authority of democratically elected officials. The army has been used to fight organized crime in Mexico since 2006, but its role increased sharply after AMLO took office in 2018.
“[The Syndicate] operates like a military junta that allows for a civilian president, but they pull the strings from the shadows,” Mike Vigil, the former chief of operations for the DEA, told The Daily Beast.
Soldiers are now routinely used to police shipping ports and urban centers, and even in construction projects like the new international airport in Mexico City.
Vigil, who spent more than a dozen years stationed in Mexico, accused the military of “playing a role in every facet of the government.”
A senior law enforcement official in Mexico, who asked that his name be withheld so he could speak freely, likened the Syndicate to a “clan of power” which Mexico’s president must “serve blindly and absolutely out of fear for a coup against him.”
“The military has always behaved independently and in their interests,” the official said. “And they have a decisive influence on the president who must bow to their requests.”
The army’s growing power in Mexico has not, however, translated to victory in the cartel wars. Instead, the death toll has continued to climb over the last few years. There have already been 29,182 murders within the first 10 months of 2020—including an 8-percent spike in October—putting it on pace to be the deadliest year in the country’s history.
At the same time, the military’s once sterling image has become increasingly tarnished. In recent years the armed forces have been implicated in a number of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings. That list includes a massacre of 16 civilians in 2015 and the infamous disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero province—both of which happened under Cienfuegos’s tenure as defense minister.
Dr. Robert Bunker, a research director with the strategic studies institute Futures LLC, compared Mexico’s Syndicate to Venezuela’s Cartel de los Soles, which is also said to be run by the country’s top generals.
“The officer corps in authoritarian and still transitioning authoritarian militaries, of which [Mexico’s] is the latter, are corrupt and heavily profit from the illicit economy at the most senior levels,” Bunker said in an email.
The army’s internal corruption is one reason U.S. law enforcement agencies prefer to work with the smaller but more elite Mexican Marines.
“The marines are viewed as being less tainted and corrupted by cartel money or actively profiting from narcotics trafficking,” he said. “This is why they have traditionally been used as a ‘hunter-capture’ force to take down cartel kingpins rather than the army.”
“A Poster Boy for Impunity”
So what’s next for El Padrino?
The AMLO administration has promised that he’ll be tried fairly in Mexico but critics remain skeptical.
“I don’t believe that he will be prosecuted because Mexico has never investigated Cienfuegos, nor do they have any charges against him,” said former DEA chief Vigil. “He will be protected by the military cabal and the judiciary there is very weak.”
Vigil also pointed out that even if the case does go to trial the outcome will be in doubt, as the success rate in federal prosecutions is less than 5 percent.
“He will be a free man and will be a poster boy for corruption and impunity,” Vigil said. He also said that part of the Syndicate’s motivation for demanding the repatriation and avoiding a trial is so that the general can’t out co-conspirators to cop a plea.
“The thousands of intercepted Blackberry communications showed that Cienfuegos was recruiting other army commanders to protect H-2’s operations as they moved tons of drugs through multiple Mexican states to the U.S. border,” said Vigil. “The army had to be very concerned that Cienfuegos would disclose names,” which would be “disastrous for the institution.”
The DEA and U.S. prosecutors have made the evidence gathered in the case available to their counterparts in Mexico. But because the intercepted messages were collected by a foreign government there is no guarantee that judges will find them admissible.
Futures director Bunker said there might be a kind of show trial, during which the presiding judge could just “make the case fall apart.”
“I have trouble seeing Cienfuegos being convicted—even with a light sentence—since the army as an institution would be dishonored,” Bunker said.
Benítez-Manaut agreed with that assessment:
“In Mexico the general opinion is that the judges will help him and he will not be hit with criminal charges.”
Because of their power and influence and long-standing regard in Mexican society, commanders at the highest level sometimes do see themselves as above the law. “For them it is not impunity, it is a right,” Benítez-Manaut said.
Vigil agreed. “There is a different set of rules for high ranking corrupt officials. The military normally gets a stay-out-of-jail card for corruption and wholesale massacres,” he said.
Another motive to quash the case could be the need for the military as a whole to preserve its image as an almost sanctified entity—one immune to the influence of narco-traffickers—lest Mexico come to be seen as a full-fledged narco state.
“The Mexican army was desperate to gain the release of Cienfuegos in order to maintain the illusion that they and the government have no ties to organized crime,” Vigil said.
Despite such efforts at damage control, the rift between U.S. law enforcement and the military in Mexico may be irreparable, at least for the near future.
Vigil called the new-found distrust between Mexico’s security forces and the DEA a “malignant tumor” that will continue to fester.
“The issue of Cienfuegos release will certainly choke the critical exchange of information between both countries,” Vigil said, “and that will only benefit the violent cartels.”