Mexico’s former drug czar found guilty of taking payoffs to protect cartels

Mexico's Secretary of Public Safety Genaro García Luna
Mexico’s then-Secretary of Public Safety Genaro García Luna in 2010.
(Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)
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Mexico’s former top law enforcement official — once tasked with fighting the country’s drug cartels — was convicted in New York on Tuesday of taking millions of dollars in bribes from traffickers.

Genaro García Luna, who headed Mexico’s federal police before serving as the nation’s secretary of public security more than a decade ago, was found guilty of cooperating with the Sinaloa cartel, which at the time was run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.

García Luna, 54, is the highest-ranking current or former Mexican official ever to be tried in the United States. He faces a prison term of 20 years to life.


Among other crimes, he was found to have provided inside information to the Sinaloa cartel, facilitating the importation into the United States of tons of cocaine and other drugs and helping the cartel attack rival gangs.

The more-than-four-week trial in a Brooklyn courtroom was closely watched in Mexico, where the public was riveted by dramatic testimony about cartel operatives providing a fortune in bribes to García Luna in briefcases, duffel bags and a suitcase.

In his regular morning news conferences, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has included frequent updates on the trial, often presenting slick video reports produced by his government. The proceedings provided him fodder to denounce former President Felipe Calderón, a longtime political adversary.

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García Luna served as the country’s head of public security — a position often described as drug czar — during Calderón’s entire presidency, from 2006 to 2012.

Calderón unleashed a bloody U.S.-backed war against drug traffickers, often featuring García Luna as its public face. The effort left tens of thousands dead but failed to rein in cartels or reduce cross-border drug trafficking.

After the verdict, a spokesman for López Obrador tweeted: “Justice has come for the former squire of @FelipeCalderon. The crimes against our people will never be forgotten.”

There was no immediate comment Tuesday from Calderón, who has denied any knowledge of illegal activities by his former top cop, though he has acknowledged hearing “rumors” that García Luna may have been corrupt. The former president was roundly assailed on social media and in the press after the verdict.


“Hopefully Felipe Calderón is feeling a pinch of the fear and terror that his absurd war provoked for millions of families in Mexico,” tweeted Luis Eliud Tapia, a human rights lawyer in Mexico.

The verdict puts Calderón “in a tight spot,” tweeted Denise Dresser, a political commentator in Mexico. “Either he knew and was an accomplice. Or he didn’t know and was incompetent. But both are guilty of setting off\generating the war, the violence, the militarization and the narco State that we suffer from today.”

As the head of public security, García Luna worked closely with U.S. law enforcement officials. López Obrador has called on Washington to investigate the behavior of U.S. anti-drug agents and other officials who cooperated with García Luna.

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Mexico is also pressing a civil case against García Luna in Florida courts in a bid to recuperate hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly embezzled by the former official.

López Obrador — widely known by his initials, AMLO — regularly asserts that his leadership has largely eliminated the institutional graft that has long plagued Mexico.

But many Mexicans reject that contention as absurd, given the widespread power of cartels operating in concert with local cops and politicians.


“I think AMLO has good intentions, but I don’t believe for a minute that his government doesn’t have deals with the narcos,” said Armando Romero, 42, a street vendor in Mexico City. “His government also negotiates with the narcos. And the Americans know it but won’t say anything until he is no longer president.”

López Obrador has greatly bolstered the security and economic portfolio of the Mexican military — a powerful bloc that has frequently been accused of human rights abuses and corruption.

And in 2020, López Obrador objected vociferously after U.S. authorities arrested a former Mexican defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, at Los Angeles International Airport. He was detained on corruption charges, angering Mexico’s military brass, close allies of López Obrador, who dismissed the allegations as “garbage.”

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The Trump administration eventually relented, dropped the charges and returned Cienfuegos to Mexico.

It was a far different story for García Luna. Under tight security, an anonymous New York federal court jury deliberated three days before reaching a verdict in the drug trafficking case against him.

García Luna denied the allegations. His lawyers said the charges were based on lies from criminals who wanted to punish his drug-fighting efforts and to get sentencing breaks for themselves by helping prosecutors.


A roster of ex-smugglers and former Mexican officials testified that García Luna took millions of dollars in cartel cash, met with major traffickers and kept law enforcement at bay.

He was “the best investment they had,” said Sergio “El Grande” Villarreal Barragan, a former federal police officer who worked for cartels on the side and later as his main job. “We had absolutely no problems with our activities.”

Among the testimony at the trial was a secondhand claim that Calderón sought to protect Guzmán — the former Sinaloa cartel boss — against a major rival. Calderón called the allegation “absurd” and “an absolute lie.”

Guzman is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. “supermax” prison. It was during Guzman’s high-profile trial more than three years ago in the same New York courthouse that allegations against García Luna emerged and led to his arrest.

McDonnell is a Times staff writer and Sánchez a special correspondent. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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