BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledged Friday to suspend or remove any active officials linked to the country’s former defense secretary after U.S. prosecutors unsealed drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges against General Salvador Cienfuegos.
“All those who are involved in the General Cienfuegos affair, who are acting officials in the government or in the Ministry of Defense, will be suspended or presented to the competent authorities,” López Obrador said, according to a translation of his remarks by the editor of Mexico Business.
Under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, the general also known as “Zepeda” or “El Padrino” managed the country’s army and air force from 2012 to 2018, reporting directly to the Mexican president.
Cienfuegos, 72, was arrested Thursday night at Los Angeles International Airport after arriving with his family. Alleging four counts of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana, as well as conspiracy to launder proceeds from selling narcotics, the indictment against him was filed in New York’s Eastern District.
The Brooklyn courthouse is the same one where testimony against the Sinaloa cartel drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán tied the country’s organized crime problem to Nieto himself and the highest reaches of Mexico’s government.
After the December arrest of Genaro García Luna, who served as minister of public security under former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Cienfuegos is the highest-ranking former cabinet official to be in U.S. custody. Luna is awaiting trial in Brooklyn as well after pleading not guilty to drug-trafficking charges. Guzman was given a life sentence.
López Obrador spoke Friday about the sweeping stretch of corruption that such indictments indicate. “I have always said that it was not just one single crisis but a process of progressive degradation,” the Mexican president said.
Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme notes in a detention memo that Cienfuegos is said to have accepted bribes from the H-2 Cartel, which was led by Juan Francisco Patron Sanchez out of Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico.
“In exchange for bribe payments, he permitted the H-2 Cartel — a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder — to operate with impunity in Mexico,” the memo says.
The general’s involvement is said to be documented in thousands of messages that law enforcement officials intercepted from his BlackBerry. They show Cienfuegos making sure that the military did not go after H-2, acting against rival drug-trafficking organizations, and even helping H-2 to transport drug shipments, expand its range, and introduce traffickers to other government officials willing to take cartel bribes.
The indictment also asserts that senior leaders of H-2 murdered a cartel member whom they incorrectly believed was helping authorities after Cienfuegos tipped the gang off about three ongoing U.S. law enforcement investigations.
Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the AP that he heard allegations that Cienfuegos was corrupt wile in Mexico in 2012. He suggested that recent arrests of cartel leaders and officials could lead to further prosecution of those at the top, since U.S. prosecutors are likely to “trade up” for evidence against individuals at equal or higher rank.
“There were always allegations of corruption, nothing we could sink our teeth into. That was kind of unheard of because Mexico has always put the military on a pedestal,” Vigil said. “The corruption is just coming to roost, because individuals who were once untouchable are now getting arrested.”
The 8-page indictment specifies the amount of substances containing various illicit drugs included in the charge: At least one kilogram of a substance containing heroin; five kilograms containing cocaine; 500 grams containing methamphetamine; and 1,000 kilograms containing marijuana.
Cienfuegos is scheduled to appear in Los Angeles on Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon, a George H. W. Bush appointee. The general is represented by attorney Duane Lyons.