US charges ex-chief of Mexican anti-drug unit with trafficking

The US Coast Guard shows off cocaine and marijuana intercepted in more than a dozen separate raids in the Caribbean in October 2019 (AFP Photo/JOE RAEDLE)

New York (AFP) - A former commander of a Mexican federal police unit that worked hand-in-glove with US agents fighting drugs cartels has been indicted in New York on drugs trafficking charges, US prosecutors said Friday.

Ivan Reyes Arzate was indicted by a grand jury in Brooklyn on Thursday with three counts of conspiracy to bring cocaine into the United States between September and November 2016.

The charges carry a minimum 10-year sentence if convicted, with a maximum penalty of life behind bars.

Reyes Arzate, who is being held in a New York prison, appeared before a federal judge on Friday and pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The judge agreed with the prosecution and ordered him to remain in custody, citing the danger of him trying to flee the country for Mexico.

Reyes Arzate had been chief of the Sensitive Investigative Unit, or SIU, between 2008 and 2016, acting as a key pointman between the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Mexico's security forces.

US prosecutors accused him of having "abused his position by providing assistance to Mexican drug cartels in exchange for at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes."

That assistance included "providing protection for ... drug trafficking activities" of some of Mexico's most notorious cartels, including the Beltran Leyva Organization, known for its extreme violence.

The SIU works alongside Mexico police forces and DEA agents to counter drugs trafficking, money laundering and other crimes linked to the powerful cartels. The unit's members receive training at the DEA headquarters in the United States and are kept informed of US operations underway in Mexico.

But while he was working alongside the DEA, Reyes Arzate was also passing information to the Beltran Leyva Organization and another cartel known as El Seguimiento 39, as well as other criminal gangs, US prosecutors charged.

"With the defendant's corrupt assistance, these cartels conducted their criminal activity in Mexico without significant interference from Mexican law enforcement, and imported multi-ton quantities of cocaine and other drugs into the United States," prosecutor Richard Donaghue said.

Reyes Arzate turned himself in to authorities in Chicago in 2018 after being accused of passing on sensitive information about US investigations to Mexican drugs cartels.

He was sentenced that same year in Chicago to 40 months in jail, and was due to be released on January 27 and deported to Mexico, the prison service said. But on Thursday a grand jury in New York levelled fresh charges against him of conspiracy to smuggle drugs into the United States.

The prosecution has called for his case to be heard by Judge Brian Cogan, who oversaw the trial of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Cogan is also due to preside over the trial of Mexico's ex-public security chief Genaro Garcia Luna, who was arrested in Texas last month for allegedly taking millions in bribes to help the crime boss smuggle drugs into the United States.