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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Mexican official said to be El Chapo’s inside man readies for drug trial

The case is a chance for the Justice Department and drug enforcement agents to show they can prosecute — and convict — top-level foreign officials involved in the illegal drug trade.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Nearly three years after the fate of Mexico’s most notorious drug kingpin was sealed in a Brooklyn courtroom, the government official accused of being El Chapo’s man inside the Mexican government is set to face trial next week in the same district. 

Genaro García Luna, former secretary of public security, is charged with taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel to protect its boss and the man behind the moniker, Joaquín Guzmán Loera. During Guzmán’s trial, a cooperating witness described handing over cash to the official on two occasions in the mid-2000s, several years apart — between 3 million and 5 million dollars stashed in briefcases each time, officials say. 

The 54-year-old was arrested in 2019 in Dallas. In his five-count indictment, García Luna is accused of cocaine distribution and conspiracy under a criminal enterprise and lying to immigration officials when he said he had not committed any crimes. 

García Luna, who is being held without bail as a potential flight risk, pleaded not guilty. His defense attorney Cesar de Castro has said the government’s case is based upon the word of drug traffickers who can’t be considered credible. 

As far as working to nail foreign government officials for drug-related corruption, this is a pretty big get for U.S. prosecutors, one legal expert told Courthouse News. In American government terms, García Luna’s role would have exceeded that of the head of the FBI, more akin to a key advisory role like attorney general. 

“This is cabinet-level,” said Nathan Jones, associate professor of security studies at Sam Houston State University, who wrote a book on Mexico’s illicit drug networks. 

Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, under whom García Luna served, denied any knowledge of his public security secretary’s ties to the infamous Sinaloa Cartel. 

García Luna also faces a separate civil lawsuit from the Mexican government, filed in Miami. It accuses the former public security leader of stealing $250 million from the Mexican government and laundering the money through bank accounts in Barbados and the United States — including through the purchase of real estate in Miami-Dade County, Florida.

Guzmán was sentenced to life in prison and last year was denied his final bid for a retrial. His three-month prosecution garnered international attention that had members of the media camping out at the Brooklyn federal courthouse to nab a seat in the courtroom. 

Perhaps the only prosecution comparable to García Luna’s, by sharp contrast, petered out well before a trial could be set. After bringing a four-count indictment against Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the former Mexican defense secretary also known as “El Padrino,” U.S. attorneys decided not to prosecute the septuagenarian. Instead, they kicked the matter over to Cienfuegos’ home country, where he did not face charges. 

What led to the political decisions behind Cienfuegos’ release has been the subject of media intrigue, including a recently published investigation co-led by The New York Times Magazine and ProPublica. 

It was then-Attorney General William P. Barr who instructed prosecutors to drop the charges, saying Mexican officials pledged to do their own investigating, the publications reported. 

“If we had to pay a price in Mexico to finally prosecute someone like Cienfuegos, we were all willing to pay it because it would have made a difference,” the investigation quotes a veteran agent from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as saying. “But instead, we paid the price and got nothing.”

Jones thinks there may be more yet to the story. 

“The truth is I’m waiting for even more investigative reporting to come out on that,” Jones said.  

In the case of García Luna, on the other hand, the administration and U.S. Department of Justice have a chance to show some muscle. 

“High-level corruption directly related to the drug trade is something that both DOJ and DEA can investigate well, and bring those cases to fruition and full prosecution and conviction, and that shows that there isn’t impunity,” Jones said. “That’s an important signal into this system as well.” 

How the government will target their case remains to be seen; jurors may get a replay of some of Guzmán’s monthslong trial — though this prosecution is expected to last around six weeks. Jones thinks it will be a bit more targeted.  

“My gut tells me the prosecutors are going to try to focus narrowly on Genaro García Luna,” Jones said. “That they’re going to kind of laser in on him, not necessarily the broader connections — it’s going to be focusing on him and his acts.

“But I could be totally wrong on that,” Jones added.  

As trial ramps up, Jones plans to keep an eye on how intercepted communications and chats, wiretaps, and individual informants may be used in the case ahead. 

Jury selection in García Luna’s trial begins Tuesday, January 17, with opening statements to follow. Presiding is U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan. 

Follow @NinaPullano
Categories / Criminal, International, Trials

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