CALI, Colombia—Mexico’s former security minister, who also masterminded that country’s war against the cartels, was arrested last Monday by U.S. officials in Dallas, Texas.
Genaro García Luna stands accused by the U.S. attorney general of accepting millions of dollars from Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán while serving as the country’s crime czar.
That’s like Al Capone bribing J. Edgar Hoover to keep the FBI off his back.
When then-President Felipe Calderón chose to militarize Mexico’s fight against organized crime, he tasked Luna with drafting the strategy. An engineer by training, and having never served in the armed forces or law enforcement, Luna drafted a controversial plan that involved deploying the Mexican Army across the country to fight the cartels.
While Luna allegedly got rich taking bribes from El Chapo, tens of thousands died in the ongoing violence, with 2019 set to be the worst year on record. Luna is also wanted in Mexico for his crimes.
Court documents unsealed this week in Brooklyn revealed the allegations, which include conspiracy to traffic cocaine. He’s also charged with lying about his criminal background when he applied for naturalization in the U.S.
Prosecutors say that on two occasions Luna accepted suitcases full of cash containing about $5 million each. In exchange, he provided Chapo's syndicate with security and access for shipping drugs into the U.S., as well as intel on official investigations and the doings of rival cartels.
Luna has maintained his innocence, referring to the allegations when they first surfaced as: "Lies, defamation and perjury."
According to U.S. prosecutors, Luna’s assistance allowed El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel to conduct business “with impunity” in Mexico for more than a decade.
“The arrest of García Luna highlights just how significant of a challenge Mexican president Manuel López Obrador faces in rooting out corruption among government officials,” wrote Maureen Meyer, the Mexico director at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“The sole fact that cases like Luna's are being heard in the U.S. and not Mexico points to significant weaknesses in Mexico’s criminal justice institutions, and how political influence has tainted investigations for far too long.”
Mexican journalist Emmanuel Gallardo, who specializes in covering the cartels, said this was indicative of a larger pattern in Mexico, in which “the drug war is a farce waged against peasants” while wealthy businessmen and politicians profit on the side.
“Think about it: The president’s right-hand man was working with the country’s largest mafia. This is another example which shows the narcos can exist only because the state allows them to,” Gallardo said.
“This proves the corruption goes all the way to the top of the Mexican government.”
If this were but an isolated incident, it would still be an outrageous scandal. But, sadly, corruption like Luna’s has become a common feature of the drug war in Mexico and much of Latin America.
Official statistics are hard to come by. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime issued a report in 2017 that indicates further study into the link between drug trafficking and corruption is needed. But one stat in the report stands out: In low-income countries the percentage of public officials, judges, and police officers taking bribes can exceed 50 percent.
And the anecdotal evidence suggests that, as with Secretary Luna, the drug war rot goes straight to the top in many countries.
Long considered one of the most corrupt countries in the Americas by groups like Transparency International, Mexico has been rocked by a number of high-profile corruption cases of late. Public figures like athletes, musicians, and a string of wealthy state governors have all been implicated. And recent accusations similar to those that brought down Luna have also surfaced against former president Enrique Peña Nieto (more on that later). But the whiff of narco gangrene isn’t limited to Mexico.
Last June, a Brazilian military officer traveling as part of President Jair Bolsonaro’s official G20 delegation was arrested in Spain for attempting to ferry 39 kilos (about 86 pounds) of cocaine in his suitcase. Earlier this year, Colombia’s National Director of Anti-Corruption was busted in a DEA sting in Miami after he attempted to solicit a bribe in exchange for sabotaging an investigation into another corrupt official. Also in Colombia, an unrelated DEA agent was rolled up for attempting to commit “deceit, craft, and trickery” on behalf of a drug lord who had plied him with cash and prostitutes.
“The cartels are powerful and dangerous, and the probability of punishment for cooperating with them is still too low. That creates a strong incentive for officials to tolerate or collude with criminals,” said Adam Isacson, a colleague of Meyer’s, and the director of WOLA’s Defense Oversight program.
The Central American nation of Honduras is perhaps the most striking example of the tendency toward criminal collusion among America’s ostensible drug war allies. After the democratically elected president was ousted in a military coup in 2009, the country became home to one of the highest homicide rates on earth. It’s also a major way station for drugs passing from South America to Mexico and the U.S.
In August of this year, a 44-page document filed by prosecutors in New York’s Southern District Court identified Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and former President Pepe Lobo—along with other prominent politicians and family members—as “co-conspirators” in a plot to “leverage drug trafficking to maintain and enhance their political power."
Prosecutors in that case also alleged that some $1.5 million of drug money was used to help Hernández win the presidency in 2013. His re-election in 2017 was also tainted with charges of tampering, though the Trump administration chose to look the other way. Also in 2017, ex-President Lobo’s son was sentenced to more than two decades in U.S. federal prison for cocaine trafficking.
Honduras’ descent into a full-fledged “narco-state” is all the more worrisome given its long history as one of the White House’s staunchest allies in the war on drugs, and the recipient of millions of dollars in controversial military and security assistance.
Grahame Russell, director of the US-based NGO Rights Action, which maintains a full-time presence in Honduras, criticized Washington for ignoring all those mis-spent tax dollars:
“President Hernández, many government officials, military and police officers have been implicated in or charged with drug trafficking and money laundering,” Russell told The Daily Beast. Yet “there has been no change whatsoever in the political, economic and military support that the Honduras regime receives from the U.S.”
The same could be said of Mexico, which has received almost $3 billion to fight the drug war over the last 12 years, regardless of human rights violations and corruption charges accrued during that span.
Russell said the lack of oversight by the White House actually empowers greed-driven elites in Latín America, and accused the Trump administration of being willing “to maintain relations with governments—no matter how corrupt, anti-democratic or repressive—that promote the interests of international corporations, investors and banks.”
WOLA’s Isacson agreed that graft has led to America keeping some strange, drug-war bedfellows.
“U.S. administrations need to be much more careful about who their ‘friends’ are in the struggle against organized crime,” he said.
“Organized crime is much harder to fight than an insurgency or terrorist group” because “you’re fighting an enemy whose main mode of operation is to corrupt and penetrate [your allies]. Any U.S. strategy that loses sight of high-level corruption is doomed to failure.”
U.S. prosecutors first got wind of what Luna had been up to during Chapo Guzmán’s trial in New York, when a key witness recounted how the cash-filled luggage had been delivered to the defense secretary. The AG pounced on that evidence, leading to Luna’s arrest this week, but even more shocking allegations also surfaced during the trial.
Another witness called in Chapo’s defense, in January of this year, was Alex Cifuentes, who worked with Guzmán in Mexico from 2007 to 2013. During that time, as revealed in Cifuentes’ sworn testimony, penultimate Mexican President Peña Nieto asked that Chapo suborn him to the tune of $250 million. In return for the enormous kickback, according to Cifuentes, Nieto promised that Chapo “wouldn’t have to hide anymore.”
As per the trial transcripts, the sitting president at the time eventually settled for $100 million and the payment was delivered. Nieto then went on to have Chapo captured twice, finally resulting in extradition to the U.S.
Nieto, for his part, tweeted at the time that the charges laid out by Chapo’s witness were “false, defamatory, and absurd.”
But since the testimony from Chapo’s trial netted them a successful indictment against Luna, might U.S. prosecutors also probe Nieto?
“Only time will tell,” said WOLA’s Meyers.
“U.S. prosecutors will be responsible for deciding to investigate all allegations against Mexican officials raised in [Chapo’s] trial, which could also be complemented by information that García Luna might choose to provide,” she said.
“There’s a saying in Mexico: A politician who is poor is a poor politician,” said Gallardo. “In Mexico politics is a business.”
A very dirty business indeed.