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

Brokers 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 navy.

Abruptly, one of many individuals below surveillance instructed 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, in keeping with 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 surprising 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 along 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 way of early 2017, in keeping with an indictment unsealed within the Japanese District of New York on Friday.

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

The information not solely casts a pall over Mexico’s battle towards organized crime, but additionally 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 overall’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 fees of taking bribes whereas in workplace to guard the Sinaloa drug cartel, considered one of Mexico’s strongest prison mafias.

That official, Genaro García Luna, served as the pinnacle of Mexico’s Federal Investigation Company from 2001 to 2005, and for the subsequent six years was Mexico’s secretary of public safety, a Cupboard-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 implies that two of the highest-ranking and most generally revered commanders ever to supervise the battle on medicine in Mexico had been working with organized crime — serving to the very cartels that proceed to kill report numbers of Mexicans.

The 2 circumstances name into query the American function within the drug battle as properly. 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 had been enjoying a double sport.

“The issue in working in Mexico the place you’ve this stage of corruption is that you simply by no means actually know who you’re working with,” stated Mike Vigil, a former chief of worldwide operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Company. “There’s all the time a priority that Mexican legislation enforcement might compromise you, or compromise an informant, or compromise an investigation.”

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

A mercurial presence, Cienfuegos symbolized the distinguished function the navy 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 by no means been a minister of protection in Mexico arrested,” stated Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican international minister. “The minister of protection in Mexico is a man that not solely runs the military and is a navy man, however he studies on to the president. There is no such thing as a one above him besides the president.”

Due to that energy and autonomy, analysts and others have lengthy suspected some high leaders of corruption. However with their elevated standing, nobody dared examine — at the least not in Mexico.

“It is a large deal,” stated Alejandro Madrazo, a professor at CIDE, a college in Mexico. “The navy has turn into far more corrupt and far more abusive for the reason that battle on medicine was declared, and for the primary time they might not be untouchable — however not by the Mexican authorities, by the American authorities.”

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

Mexico’s navy 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.

Using troopers skilled in fight however not in policing has introduced issues properly past corruption. With the navy entrance and middle within the battle 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 navy’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 move the legislation, which gave the navy 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 skilled for home safety and had been uncovered legally.

However Cienfuegos additionally defended the navy, 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.

“At the moment the crimes we’re coping with are of one other stage and significance; they contain lots of people, typically total households, and we’re appearing with out a authorized body,” Cienfuegos stated in March 2018. “With out it, our assistance is impeded.”

The navy has repeatedly been singled out for human rights abuses and using 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, in keeping with two American legislation enforcement officers.

Regardless that a gaggle of American brokers was in a position on the time to determine Cienfuegos as a corrupt accomplice 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.

However by 2015, the official stated, stress to do one thing about Cienfuegos elevated. At the very least two separate American wiretaps started to choose 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 prison group related to Meza Flores’ group, the previous official stated.

The U.S. legal professional’s workplace in Brooklyn has in current months turn into 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 legal professional 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 tough for Mexico to take the lead in these investigations.

Among the many findings by U.S. authorities: Cienfuegos was actively corrupting different Mexican officers by introducing high-level cartel members to these keen 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 text initially appeared in The New York Instances.

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