Ex-Mexico Security Chief Is Convicted of Protecting El Chapo

(Bloomberg) -- Genaro Garcia Luna, once in charge of Mexico’s battle to root out illegal narcotics and vanquish drug kingpins, was convicted for secretly providing years of protection to “El Chapo” and the Sinaloa cartel.

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Garcia Luna, accused of helping cartel members import and distribute massive quantities of drugs into the US, was found guilty on Tuesday by a federal jury in Brooklyn, New York, after a four-week trial that uncovered how narco-traffickers worked with the very Mexican government official appointed to go after them.

The jury of six women and six men convicted Garcia Luna, 54, of all five counts against him, including multiple conspiracy counts for distributing and importing cocaine and the most serious charge, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. Under that charge, which carries a mandatory 20-year prison term and a maximum of life behind bars, the jury concluded that he had helped the cartel import tens of thousands of kilos of cocaine between 2002 and 2008.

He is the highest-ranking current or former Mexican official ever to be tried in the US.

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Garcia Luna is scheduled to be sentenced June 27. His lawyer, Cesar de Castro, told US District Judge Brian Cogan that his client would appeal the verdict. Cogan gave him until April 7 to file the papers. De Castro had no immediate comment on the outcome.

Closely Watched Trial

The trial was followed closely on both sides of the border. An acquittal would have been another setback for US efforts to crack down on drug-related corruption in Mexico, after former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested in the US on charges of taking bribes in exchange for protecting cartel leaders. That case provoked a firestorm in Mexico, and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn eventually dropped the charges at the request of then Attorney General William Barr in 2020. Mexico later exonerated Cienfuegos.

Garcia Luna led Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency before heading up public security as a cabinet minister from 2006 to 2012 for then Mexican president Felipe Calderon. Responsible for overseeing the nation’s efforts to combat the illicit narcotics trade, he was arrested in 2019. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a political rival of Calderon, has repeatedly referred to the case in his daily press conference to bash his predecessors for corruption.

“The crimes against our people will never be forgotten,” his spokesman Jesus Ramirez wrote in a tweet after the verdict.

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On Tuesday, as Garcia Luna entered the courtroom to hear the verdict, he turned to his wife and daughter, blew them a kiss and put his hand on his heart. After the jurors filed in, he sat with his hands clasped and stared straight ahead at the judge, who read the verdict out to the court.

Breon Peace, the US attorney in Brooklyn, called Garcia Luna a “traitor” who took “money that was stained by the blood of cartel wars and drug-related battles in the streets of the United States and Mexico.”

Garcia Luna “once stood at the pinnacle of law enforcement in Mexico” and “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 take down the cartels, Peace said in a statement.

Cartel as Cop

During the trial, the US called to the stand nine former cartel members as cooperating witnesses. They described how Garcia Luna secretly placed Sinaloa members on the Mexican federal police rolls, while providing them with official vehicles, uniforms and badges. The phony officers, and sometimes real federal police working for Garcia Luna, helped cartel workers unload drugs on airport tarmacs and tipped the drug lords to imminent raids by US authorities.

They even got the satisfaction of having the police arrest rival traffickers — and sometimes got to keep the seized drugs.

In exchange for his help, the cartel rewarded Garcia Luna with a fortune, the jury heard.

“He used his official position to make millions of dollars for himself from the people he was supposed to prosecute,” Assistant US Attorney Saritha Komatireddy told the jurors in her closing argument.

SUV Stuffed With Cash

Jesus “El Rey” Zambada, who ran Sinaloa’s operations at Mexico City’s airport, testified that in late 2006 he stuffed bags with at least $5 million and spirited them to an intermediary for delivery to Garcia Luna at a posh restaurant in the capital.

In turn, Zambada said, Garcia Luna agreed to shield his brother, a cartel boss, and others from law enforcement.

One former Mexican federal police officer who went to work for the cartel, Sergio Villarreal Barragan, testified that Garcia Luna was paid as much as $1.5 million a month for his services. After he was promoted to Mexico’s security chief, he and his associates were paid about $230 million more for the additional protection they were able to give the cartel, allowing it to expand across Mexico, Barragan told the jury.

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Garcia Luna once helped the notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman intercept a rival gang’s two-ton cocaine shipment, arriving at a warehouse with other drug bosses and agreeing to divide the drug profits evenly, Barragan testified. Mexico’s former top cop was paid $14 million to $16 million from cash crammed in cardboard boxes, he said.

“There were so many boxes they didn’t fit in their SUV,” Barragan told the jurors. So the traffickers lent Garcia Luna a car to help him lug away his take, Barragan said.

Best Market: New York

All told, the cartel sent an estimated 100 tons of cocaine a month into the US, worth $2.8 billion to $3 billion a year in pure profit, Zambada testified.

“The market that pays the best is here in New York,” he told the panel.

Jurors heard how the drugs were transported to the US on cargo planes, private jets, submarines and even in specially built freight trains disguised as oil transports but containing secret compartments of coke.

The cartel’s trains ran from Mexico directly to New York City, witnesses said. As a result, one narco trafficker testified, the enhanced security that corrupt officials like Garcia Luna provided helped him bring $700 million to $1 billion of cocaine into the US, Komatireddy told the jurors.

The Defense: Revenge

Defense lawyer De Castro tried to persuade the jury that the the cartel members and former officials testifying against Garcia Luna just wanted payback for his tough stance on drugs.

“What better revenge against your common enemy but to bury the man who led the war against the cartel?” he said in his opening statement.

In his closing, De Castro told the jury that prosecutors “made a deal with the devil” by giving admitted traffickers who had killed and tortured their victims a “free pass,” offering them leniency at sentencing in exchange for their testimony against Garcia Luna.

The case is US v. Garcia Luna, 19-cr-576, US District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

--With assistance from Maya Averbuch.

(Adds details, quotes and context throughout, starting in third paragraph.)

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