Former Mexican security official arrested in U.S., accused of taking millions in bribes from ‘El Chapo’
As Mexico’s top cop who helped launch the country’s war against drug cartels more than a decade ago, Genaro García Luna won the trust of U.S. counter-narcotics officials and was celebrated for rooting out graft among police ranks.
“In the fight against corruption, we won’t give in to pressures,” he told journalists in 2007 after announcing that he was firing hundreds of federal police commanders.
U.S. officials now say that García Luna himself was corrupt.
He was arrested in Dallas on Monday and charged with taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa drug cartel that was once headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
García Luna, who led Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency from 2001 to 2005 and served as secretary of public security from 2006 to 2012, is one of the highest-ranking Mexican officials indicted on drug trafficking charges in a U.S. court.
Officials claim that on at least two occasions, he accepted briefcases from cartel couriers stuffed with at least $3 million in cash.
In exchange, they allege, García Luna provided the Sinaloa cartel with safe passage of its drugs as well as sensitive details about law enforcement investigations into the group and information about rival gangs.
Genaro García Luna, who served as secretary of public security in Mexico from 2006 to 2012, was charged with three counts of cocaine trafficking conspiracy and one count of making false statements.
García Luna was charged with three counts of conspiracy to traffic cocaine and one count of making false statements, according to an indictment unsealed Tuesday. It’s the latest in a string of U.S. cases targeting the Mexican narcotics industry, including this year’s conviction of Guzman on trafficking and murder charges.
U.S. Atty. Richard Donoghue said in a statement that the García Luna case “demonstrates our resolve to bring to justice those who help cartels inflict devastating harm on the United States and Mexico regardless of the positions they held while committing their crimes.”
According to the indictment, the bribery occurred sometime after 2001, the year García Luna became the head of the Federal Investigation Agency under newly elected President Vicente Fox.
The election of Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive who ran with the National Action Party, ended more than seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party and was widely hailed as an unprecedented democratic opening and an opportunity to stamp out corruption.
Under the previous political system, cartels frequently paid Mexican officials in order to easily traffic drugs north to the United States. Fox and his young protege García Luna presented themselves as reformers intent on professionalizing Mexico’s institutions.
When Felipe Calderón took office as president in 2006, also under the banner of the National Action Party, García Luna became the public face of the president’s controversial war on drug cartels.
During that time, García Luna worked closely with U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials and was tasked with building a federal police force.
A flattering 2008 profile in the New York Times Magazine described García Luna as “something of a wunderkind,” a man with a “square jaw, squat build and crew cut” who was savvy with technology and committed to cleaning up Mexico’s notoriously corrupt police.
“We are obligated to confront crime,” García Luna said when asked whether Mexico should consider making deals with cartels to reduce crime. “That is our job, that is our duty, and we will not consider a pact.”
But as time went on, García Luna began to face scrutiny for his own behavior.
There was an embarrassing episode in which he was found to have staged a police raid of kidnapping victims for a television crew. And then there was the question of his numerous luxury homes, which seemed out of reach for someone with a civil servant’s salary.
U.S. officials say records show that by the time García Luna moved to the United States in 2012, he had amassed a fortune of millions of dollars.
Prominent Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández took note of his personal wealth and published a book in 2010 alleging that García Luna accepted bribes in exchange for protecting the Sinaloa cartel. She later filed complaints with Mexico’s human rights commission accusing García Luna of trying to hire federal police officers to kill her.
The bribery claims against García Luna reemerged during Guzman’s drug trafficking and murder trial last year.
At the trial, former cartel member Jesus Zambada García testified that he twice met García Luna in a restaurant and gave him a briefcase filled with cash.
Zambada García said the first payoff occurred in 2005, when García Luna was the head of the Federal Investigation Agency, and the second one a year later, after García Luna had been promoted to secretary of public security.
García Luna has denied those claims in the past.
He did not enter a plea to the indictment at his initial appearance in a Dallas courtroom this week, according to John Marzulli, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office. Calls to García Luna’s attorney were not returned.
García Luna obtained legal residency in the U.S. several years ago, according to a detention memo filed by the U.S. attorney’s office.
In 2018, he applied to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. In the detention memo, prosecutors alleged that on his citizenship application García Luna “made materially false statements denying his past criminal conduct.”
If he is convicted of accepting bribes, it would be a major stain on the legacies of the two presidents whom he served.
Analysts say it would especially hurt Calderón, who made combating drug traffickers his main policy priority and who has frequently criticized the less militarized approach of current President Andres Manuel López Obrador.
“It is a massive blow for Calderón,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst. “It strips away any authority he had left to speak about security matters.”
Bravo also described the arrest as a boon to López Obrador, who has frequently described his predecessors as corrupt.
“This is the U.S. going after Calderón’s public security secretary,” Bravo said. “It’s quite a gift.”
It is not the first time a top Mexican official has been brought down by drug trafficking allegations.
In 1997, Mexican anti-drug czar José de Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was arrested for working with the Juárez cartel. Like García Luna, he had once been celebrated as Mexico’s best hope in fighting crime.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
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