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Who Was ‘El Padrino,’ Godfather to Drug Cartel? Mexico’s Defense Chief, U.S. Says

Who Was ‘El Padrino,’ Godfather to Drug Cartel? Mexico’s Defense Chief, U.S. Says

MEXICO CITY — American legislation enforcement brokers have been listening in as Mexican cartel members chattered on a wiretap, speaking a couple of highly effective, shadowy determine generally known as El Padrino, or The Godfather.

Agents had been closing in on him for months, suspecting that this central determine within the drug commerce was a high-ranking official within the Mexican army.

All of a sudden, one of many folks underneath surveillance advised his fellow cartel members that El Padrino occurred to be on tv at that very second. The brokers rapidly checked to see who it was — and located it was the Mexican secretary of protection, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, based on 4 American officers concerned within the investigation.

In that second, the authorities say, they lastly confirmed that the thriller patron of one of many nation’s most violent drug cartels was truly the chief in control of waging Mexico’s battle towards organized crime.

It was a shocking show of how deep the tendrils of organized crime run in Mexico, and on Thursday night time Cienfuegos was taken into custody by the American authorities on the Los Angeles airport whereas touring together with his household.

Even for Mexico, a rustic usually inured to the unrelenting violence and corruption which have gripped it for years, the arrest was nothing lower than extraordinary, piercing the veil of invincibility that the nation’s armed forces have lengthy loved.

Cienfuegos, Mexico’s protection minister from 2012 to 2018, is being charged with laundering cash and trafficking heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana from late 2015 by means of early 2017, based on an indictment unsealed within the Eastern District of New York on Friday.

The prices are the results of a multiyear sting that investigators known as Operation Padrino. Officials say that Cienfuegos helped the H-2 cartel, a legal group that dedicated horrific acts of violence as a part of its drug smuggling enterprise, with its maritime shipments. In alternate for profitable payouts, officers say, Cienfuegos additionally directed army operations away from the cartel and towards its rivals.

The information not solely casts a pall over Mexico’s struggle towards organized crime, but in addition underscores the extent of corruption on the highest ranges of presidency. Cienfuegos was protection minister all through the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who left workplace two years in the past.

The injury to Mexico is tough to overstate. The normal’s arrest comes solely 10 months after one other high Mexican official — who as soon as led the Mexican equal of the FBI — was indicted in New York on prices of taking bribes whereas in workplace to guard the Sinaloa drug cartel, certainly one of Mexico’s strongest legal mafias.

That official, Genaro García Luna, served as the top of Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency from 2001 to 2005, and for the following six years was Mexico’s secretary of public safety, a Cabinet-level place. In that function, he had the duty of serving to the president on the time, Felipe Calderón, create the nation’s technique to battle drug cartels.

If the lads are convicted, it signifies that two of the highest-ranking and most generally revered commanders ever to supervise the battle on medicine in Mexico have been working with organized crime — serving to the very cartels that proceed to kill report numbers of Mexicans.

The two circumstances name into query the American function within the drug battle as nicely. For years, U.S. officers have helped form and fund Mexico’s methods, they usually have relied on their Mexican counterparts for operations, intelligence and broad safety cooperation. If the allegations maintain up, a few of those self same Mexican leaders have been taking part in a double recreation.

“The difficulty in working in Mexico where you have this level of corruption is that you never really know who you’re working with,” stated Mike Vigil, a former chief of worldwide operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “There’s always a concern that Mexican law enforcement could compromise you, or compromise an informant, or compromise an investigation.”

Both García Luna and Cienfuegos served on the high of the federal government when homicides spiked to historic ranges, drug cartels waged battle and army operations have been expanded.

A mercurial presence, Cienfuegos symbolized the outstanding function the army performs in Mexico. Commanders are granted a rare quantity of autonomy, seldom bowing to political pressures and sometimes having fun with safety by the president.

“There has never been a minister of defense in Mexico arrested,” stated Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican international minister. “The minister of defense in Mexico is a guy that not only runs the army and is a military man, but he reports directly to the president. There is no one above him except the president.”

Because of that energy and autonomy, analysts and others have lengthy suspected some high leaders of corruption. But with their elevated standing, nobody dared examine — a minimum of not in Mexico.

“This is a huge deal,” stated Alejandro Madrazo, a professor at CIDE, a college in Mexico. “The military has become way more corrupt and way more abusive since the war on drugs was declared, and for the first time they may not be untouchable — but not by the Mexican government, by the American government.”

On Friday, responding to the arrest, Mexico’s present president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, each defended the army and decried the dangerous actors in it. But it was unclear whether or not López Obrador would step again from his heavy reliance on the army, whose function has expanded throughout his administration to incorporate every little thing from building to public safety.

Mexico’s army has been a central a part of the nation’s home safety for the reason that crackdown on drug cartels started in 2006, with troopers deployed to areas overrun by organized crime. The secretary of protection oversees that effort.

The use of troopers educated in fight however not in policing has introduced issues nicely past corruption. With the army entrance and heart within the struggle towards narcotics trafficking, the Mexican authorities has by no means constructed an efficient police drive.

In December 2017, Mexico handed a safety legislation cementing the army’s function in preventing the drug battle, outraging the United Nations and human rights teams. They warned that the measure would result in abuses, depart troops on the streets indefinitely and militarize police actions for the foreseeable future.

Cienfuegos performed an important function in convincing politicians to cross the legislation, which gave the army authorized permission to do what it had been doing for a decade with out express authorization. At one level, he threatened to withdraw his troops from the streets, arguing they weren’t educated for home safety and have been uncovered legally.

But Cienfuegos additionally defended the army, saying it was the one establishment successfully confronting organized crime. As drug violence rocketed, he requested many times that the federal authorities present a authorized framework to guard the forces.

“Today the crimes we are dealing with are of another level and importance; they involve a lot of people, sometimes entire families, and we are acting without a legal frame,” Cienfuegos stated in March 2018. “Without it, our help is impeded.”

The army has repeatedly been singled out for human rights abuses and the usage of extreme drive, together with accusations of extrajudicial killings that dogged the armed forces all through Cienfuegos’ tenure as protection minister.

His arrest doesn’t seem to have been a joint operation with the Mexican authorities. It reaches again to an American-led investigation in late 2013 of a Mexican drug cartel run by Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, a successor to the as soon as highly effective Beltran-Leyva drug group, based on two American legislation enforcement officers.

Even although a bunch of American brokers was ready on the time to determine Cienfuegos as a corrupt associate within the Meza Flores group, there was pushback from different American and Mexican legislation enforcement businesses, and Cienfuegos was by no means totally investigated, one of many officers stated.

But by 2015, the official stated, stress to do one thing about Cienfuegos elevated. At least two separate American wiretaps started to select up chatter a couple of highly effective underworld determine who was known as “Padrino” and was believed to be Cienfuegos.

The wiretaps had focused the Sinaloa cartel and the H-2 cartel, a smaller legal group linked to Meza Flores’ group, the previous official stated.

The U.S. lawyer’s workplace in Brooklyn has in current months grow to be floor zero for circumstances associated to official corruption in Mexico.

Prosecutors there haven’t solely charged García Luna and two of his former associates, Ramon Pequeno and Luis Cardenas Palomino, however have additionally prosecuted Edgar Veytia, the previous lawyer normal of the state of Nayarit. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail final October for conspiring with the H-2 cartel.

The case towards Cienfuegos helps illustrate in some methods why it has been so troublesome for Mexico to take the lead in these investigations.

Among the findings by U.S. authorities: Cienfuegos was actively corrupting different Mexican officers by introducing high-level cartel members to these prepared to swap bribes for favors.

At one level, courtroom data say, he alerted the cartel that there was a U.S. investigation into their actions, prompting them to kill a fellow member they falsely believed to be sharing info with the authorities.

This article initially appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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