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US jury convicts former top police official in Mexico of aiding cartels

Witnesses for the government included a top cartel member who helped convict Sinaloa boss “El Chapo” with his testimony about having bribed the head of Mexico’s federal police.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Mexico’s former secretary of public security was found guilty Tuesday of accepting millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for helping El Chapo's violent Sinaloa drug cartel as it pushed thousands of tons of cocaine into the United States. 

During the monthlong trial, cooperating witnesses who worked for the billion-dollar cartel described paying off law enforcement officials from the local to federal levels in exchange for information about upcoming raids, free access to sea and airports, and to carry out investigations against rivals. Several said they personally attended meetings in which briefcases and duffel bags stuffed with cash were paid to the defendant, Genaro García Luna, whose cabinet position put him at the head of Mexico’s federal police force.

A jury of New Yorkers began deliberating the five counts against the 54-year-old García Luna on Thursday afternoon, pausing for a long weekend over Presidents Day. Juror No. 4 appeared to be holding back tears Tuesday as U.S. District Judge Brian M. Cogan read the verdict

Breon Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, called the verdict a "shining light for the rule of law.”

“Garcia Luna, who once stood at the pinnacle of law enforcement in Mexico, will now live the rest of his days having been revealed as a traitor to his country and to the honest members of law enforcement who risked their lives to dismantle drug cartels,” Peace said in a statement after the trial wrapped this afternoon.

Defense attorneys painted García Luna as an aggressive prosecutor of cartel activity — claiming that the government cooperators sought revenge on him as a result while also looking for lighter sentences and American visas for themselves and family members. Attorney Cesar De Castro repeatedly reminded jurors that the cartel members who testified were responsible for the murder, kidnapping and torture of hundreds of people. 

“At some point, you have to stand up and say no,” De Castro told jurors Wednesday in his closing argument. “You, the government, have made a deal with the devil.” 

Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, under whom García Luna served, denied any knowledge of his public security secretary’s relationship to the infamous and still-operational Sinaloa cartel.

Witness testimony about the bribes first came up in the 2018 trial that brought down the cartel's infamous leader, El Chapo, whose real name is Joaquín Guzmán. In those proceedings, Jesus “El Rey” Zambada, one of Guzmán’s right-hand men, described paying off García Luna on two occasions in the mid-2000s. 

Zambada returned to the stand this month as the last government witness to testify against García Luna. He said he prepared money for meetings at a now-closed restaurant in Mexico City called Champs Elysées. 

Sinaloa Cartel member Jesús Reynaldo Zambada García testified on February 13, 2023, that he helped pay $5 million to Mexico's former public security secretary, Genaro García Luna, during two meetings at a restaurant in Mexico City. Prosecutors presented a photo of the now-closed Champs Elysees as part of their federal case against the ex-official. (Department of Justice via Courthouse News)

Another former cartel member, Oscar Nava-Valencia — also known as "El Lobo" — told jurors he was involved in paying García Luna $10 million in 2007 after authorities seized more than 20 tons of cocaine at Mexico’s Port of Manzanillo coming from Colombia, half of which Nava-Valencia expected to receive. 

That bid failed, Nava-Valencia said, because Mexico’s marines and U.S. law enforcement were involved in the seizure. But García Luna helped in another way: furnishing a report that showed the seizure occurred because of a tip about activity on the part of the sender from Colombia. This got Nava-Valencia’s group off the hook for the $50 million the group in Colombia lost on the deal, he testified. 

The document was not produced in court, nor were financial records that witnesses said the cartel kept for government bribes — points that defense attorneys underlined when arguing that the government had failed to prove its case. 

García Luna separately faces a civil lawsuit in Miami from the Mexican government. 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.

Perhaps the only prosecution comparable to García Luna’s petered out when U.S. attorneys indicted then decided not to prosecute Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the former Mexican defense secretary also known as “El Padrino.” The government sent the matter back to Mexico where Cienfuegos has not been charged. 

It was the Trump administration's Attorney General William P. Barr who instructed U.S. prosecutors to drop the charges, saying Mexican officials pledged to do their own investigating. 

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