Mexico’s former defense minister, a decorated veteran who led the military for six years in a war on drug cartels, has been arrested at Los Angeles airport on a warrant from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
General Salvador Cienfuegos, 72, served under the scandal-ridden administration of former president Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012-2018 and was traveling with his family in the U.S. when he was detained on Thursday, according to a report in the New York Times citing a federal law enforcement official.
The DEA has not issued a statement on the case but the Associated Press cited a source familiar with the details as saying the general was detained on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking.
Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard confirmed that he had been informed about General Cienfuegos’s detention by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico but did not give further details.
Corruption has been rampant for decades among politicians and police but the army had been seen as one of the country’s cleaner institutions, so General Cienfuegos’s arrest is likely to prove a major embarrassment.
The general served for more than 40 years in Mexico’s army before Peña Nieto appointed him defense minister. He served in that role for the whole of the Peña Nieto government before retiring two years ago.
No top Mexican military official has previously been arrested in the U.S., although a former senior justice official, Genaro García Luna, was detained last year and charged with taking bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.
García Luna had been the head of Mexico’s detective force and subsequently served from 2006-2012 as the country’s security chief, a role in which he helped craft a strategy to fight drug cartels. He is currently in prison in the U.S. awaiting trial.
President López Obrador has assigned the military a central role in the fight against drug trafficking and involved it in some of his major infrastructure construction projects.
He has been highly critical of corruption under the five presidents who preceded him and is likely to exploit General Cienfuegos’s arrest as further evidence of wrongdoing under his predecessors, a narrative which fuels his popularity and helps rally support amid a rapidly shrinking economy and one of the world’s highest levels of coronavirus deaths.
The former head of the state oil company Pemex during the Peña Nieto administration, Emilio Lozoya, was arrested in Spain in February for corruption and extradited. As part of a plea bargain, Lozoya has in turn implicated three ex-presidents, four former finance ministers, two presidential challengers, two state governors and a host of legislators in a snowballing bribery scandal.
However, López Obrador has himself faced heavy criticism for being soft on drug traffickers after ordering the release of Ovidio Guzmán, a powerful drug kingpin’s son, when security forces were overwhelmed by cartel gunmen during a botched raid last year in Sinaloa state.
López Obrador, who favours a strategy of “hugs not bullets” to combat the cartels, said he took the decision so as not to put the population at risk.
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