Monday, April 15, 2024

US jury convicts Mexico’s ex-security minister García Luna

A jury in the United States has found former federal security minister Genaro García Luna guilty of colluding with the Sinaloa Cartel.

The top law enforcement official in the 2006-12 government led by former president Felipe Calderón faces a minimum of 10 years in jail and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment with no opportunity for parole.

Genaro Garcia Luna in 2004 when he was head of Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency
García Luna in 2004, when he was head of the Federal Investigation Agency (AFI). (Moises Pablo Nava/Cuartoscuro)

A sentencing hearing is expected to be scheduled for later this year, although the former cabinet minister – who was arrested in Texas in 2019 – could appeal his conviction.

On their third day of deliberations on Tuesday, the jurors at a U.S. federal court in Brooklyn voted unanimously to convict García Luna on charges he took multimillion-dollar bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel, which was previously led by imprisoned drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Their decision came after an almost month-long trial that included damning testimony from cartel figures such as Jesús “El Rey” Zambada, brother of current Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

García Luna, who was head of the now-defunct Federal Investigation Agency (AFI) before becoming security minister, was found guilty on a total of five charges.

El Chapo Guzman
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in U.S. custody in 2017 after he was extradited to the United States. (Photo: Department of Homeland Security)

He was convicted of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise; international cocaine distribution conspiracy; cocaine distribution and possession conspiracy; cocaine importation conspiracy; and making a false statement on an application for U.S. citizenship.

According to a Vice News report, the 54-year-old “reacted stoically as the jury’s foreperson read out the verdict, betraying no emotion.”

“His wife and adult son and daughter were in the courtroom, holding hands with their heads bowed,” the report said.

Linda Cristina Pereyra testified last week, and rejected the prosecution’s claim that she and her husband purchased properties and businesses with bribe money.

Defense lawyers repeatedly argued that prosecutors lacked hard evidence to show that their client took bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel, one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations.

“Prosecutors were unable to show the jury any recordings, text messages, emails or other records to prove the bribe payments ever actually occurred, and there was little evidence to show that García Luna was living beyond his means as a high-ranking public servant in Mexico,” Vice News reported.

Cesár de Castro, who led the defense, asserted in his closing statement that “the government’s lack of evidence is shocking.”

“They’re asking you to condemn a man solely on the words of some of the most notorious and ruthless criminals this world has ever seen,” he told the 12-person jury.

Defense lawyers argued unsuccessfully that the statute of limitations on the charges García faced had expired by the time he was arrested and formerly accused of collusion with the Sinaloa Cartel.

They also presented photos of their client meeting with former United States president Barrack Obama, his secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Drug Enforcement Administration personnel, among other U.S. officials, in an attempt to persuade the jury of his innocence by demonstrating that he was a trusted ally of the U.S. government.

However, the prosecution ultimately presented a more compelling case, Tuesday’s decision indicated.

Jesús Zambada, the final prosecution witness, told jurors that he delivered US $5 million in cash to García Luna to buy his support for the cartel.

Jesús "El Rey" Zambada
Former member of the Sinaloa cartel, brother of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. (Archive)

“You could work a lot” with the protection and information provided by García Luna and other law enforcement officials, said Zambada, who told jurors he was the Sinaloa Cartel’s chief at the Mexico City airport from 2000 until his capture in 2008.

According to trial testimony, Vice News reported, “cartel members received police credentials, uniforms, and equipment, and cartel bosses were allowed to choose which police commanders would supervise areas they controlled.”

Witnesses, the report continued, “said federal police officers sometimes served as bodyguards for cartel leaders and even helped unload shipments of cocaine that transited through Mexico City’s airport.”

Calderón, who launched a militarized war against cartels shortly after he took office, and current President López Obrador were mentioned during the trial, but both men denied the accusations leveled against them.

In a Twitter post on Feb. 7, Calderón rejected an accusation by former Nayarit attorney general Édgar Veytia that he ordered former Nayarit governor Ney González to support “El Chapo.”

He had previously denied any involvement in or knowledge of the alleged criminal activity of his security minister, a key architect of his bloody “war on drugs.”

López Obrador said Tuesday that he intended to file a lawsuit against de Castro after the lawyer questioned Jesús Zambada about an alleged statement he gave to U.S. authorities in which he claimed that he had delivered $7 million to a Mexico City official to fund AMLO’s 2006 presidential campaign. Zambada testified that he never said such a thing.

García Luna, who was also accused of receiving millions in bribes when AFI chief under president Vicente Fox (2000-2006), is one of the highest-ranking Mexican officials to be accused of – and convicted of – colluding with a drug trafficking organization.

Former National Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, army chief during the 2012-18 government led by ex-president Enrique Peña Nieto, was arrested in the United States on drug trafficking charges in 2020.

Former Defense Minister of Mexico Salvador Cienfuegos
Salvador Cienfuegos, Mexico’s former defense minister who was arrested in the US in 2020 on drug and money laundering charges, then released a month later after a diplomatic controversy. (Photo: Mario Jasso)

But under pressure from Mexico, which implicitly threatened to restrict the activities of U.S. agents working here and expressed “profound discontent” over not being informed of the plan to arrest him, the United States dropped the charges against the retired general and granted Mexico its wish to conduct its own investigation. The federal Attorney General’s Office exonerated Cienfuegos in early 2021.

García Luna also faces criminal charges in Mexico, but given his conviction in the U.S. and probable lengthy imprisonment it would appear unlikely that he will appear in a Mexican court any time soon, if ever.

However, with his conviction in the U.S. “justice has arrived” for the former official, tweeted Jesús Ramírez Cuevas, spokesman and communications chief for López Obrador.

“The crimes against our people will never be forgotten,” he added in a post on Tuesday afternoon.

Given the accusations García Luna faced, López Obrador claimed in 2020 that Mexico was a narco state during Calderón’s presidency. He didn’t immediately comment on the guilty verdict, but will no doubt field questions on the jury’s decision at his press conference on Wednesday morning.

With reports from Vice News 

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