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Trial opens against Mexican official charged with helping El Chapo’s cartel

“The person who was supposed to be in charge of fighting the Sinaloa Cartel was actually the most valuable asset," a federal prosecutor said during opening statements.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Federal prosecutors began to lay out their case Monday against Mexico’s former public security secretary charged with taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel, run by the notorious kingpin “El Chapo,” and helping it grow into a billion-dollar business that channeled “literal tons” of cocaine into the United States. 

Genaro García Luna’s attorneys offered jurors an alternative theory: The ex-official waged open war against drug cartels and made enemies by axing thousands of corrupt police officers who now seek revenge against him, as well as lighter sentences for themselves. 

Shortly before trial opened up in Brooklyn, García Luna, clean-shaven with closely cropped gray hair, placed his hand over his heart and blew a kiss to his family. The 54-year-old is charged with cocaine distribution and conspiracy under a criminal enterprise, and with lying to immigration officials when he didn’t disclose those crimes on his American citizenship application. 

“While entrusted to work for the Mexican people, he also had a second job. A dirty job,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Pilmar during his 10-minute opening statement. 

Pilmar previewed a case that will include testimony from police officers who safeguarded the sophisticated cartel by tipping off its members to raids and providing information that helped to quash rival gangs. He warned jurors that they will hear powerful cartel leaders describe extreme violence including murder, torture and kidnappings. 

“These are the people the defendant chose to work with,” Pilmar said. “They will tell you they couldn’t have done all that without Genaro García Luna.” 

In his security post García Luna was tasked with collaborating with American officials to combat drug trafficking between the United States and Mexico. His defense attorney pointed to the alliance in his opening statement while clicking through a slideshow featuring his client meeting with former President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator John McCain. 

Pilmar argued that García Luna’s participation in the joint effort was a facade. “The person who was supposed to be in charge of fighting the Sinaloa Cartel was actually the most valuable asset,” Pilmar said.

García Luna’s attorney predicted the government won’t be able to offer a shred of evidence — “no money, no photo, no video, no texts, no emails” — and that its case sits on the wrong side of things.

“The government will help the cartel exact the ultimate revenge,” said defense attorney Cesar De Castro. “Their evidence is based on rumors, suspicions, and the word of some of the biggest criminals in the world.” 

It was his client who extradited killers and traffickers to the United States to bring them to justice, De Castro said, part of an “all-out war” against cartel activity wherein the U.S. government supplied Mexico with helicopters, drones and information systems to fight drug gangs — which put a target on García Luna’s back. 

“Nonetheless, Mr. García Luna had the courage to accept that assignment,” De Castro said. 

After De Castro’s 30-minute opening, the government called its first witness, Sergio Villarreal Barragán, a federal police official-turned-top leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. 

Villarreal Barragán, nicknamed “El Grande,” said the organization paid García Luna more than a million dollars per month in the early 2000s. Federal police gave members official uniforms and fake police credentials, and would send warnings before planned raids so the traffickers had time to rid their officers of illicit inventory. Officers even provided security while cartel members raided rival territory, Villarreal Barragán testified. 

“We had absolutely no problems with our activities,” during that time, Villarreal Barragán said through an interpreter. 

With the help of corrupt law enforcement Sinaloa members pulled off a particularly massive heist, Villarreal Barragán explained, intercepting two tons of cocaine from the competing Gulf Cartel near Mexico City. 

In turn, the cartel paid García Luna more than $14 million in $100 bills, stacked in cardboard boxes. The loot was so voluminous it didn’t fit in the defendant’s SUVs. The official had to borrow a Chevy Suburban from cartel leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva — known as “El Compa,” meaning “buddy” — Villarreal Barragán testified. 

At other times, García Luna took money stuffed in black duffel bags, picked up at a safe house on the south side of Mexico City, Villarreal Barragán said. 

That detail aligned with 2018 testimony from the trial that took down El Chapo, whose full name is Joaquín Guzmán Loera, and is serving a life sentence after a conviction on all counts in the same Brooklyn courthouse. 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. 

Villarreal Barragán’s direct testimony will continue Tuesday. 

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