MEXICO CITY - The family holiday of Mexico's former defense minister, retired General Salvador Cienfuegos was cut short when he flew into Los Angeles last week. He was arrested before he could leave the airport. Most knew Cienfuegos as the man who led Mexico's efforts against drug cartels from 2012 to 2018, but U.S. law enforcement accused him of being known as "El Padrino", or the Godfather in the criminal underworld.
Proof of how Cienfuegos assisted a little-known group called the H-2 Cartel between 2015 and 2017 to move "thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States" by "ensuring that military operations were not conducted against the H-2 Cartel" and "initiating military operations against its rival drug trafficking organizations," was the basis of the arrest, according to American officials.
The news raised eyebrows in Mexico, not just because of the high-profile arrest but also for his alleged connection to a criminal group that many had never heard of.
While U.S. authorities referred to the group as the H-2 Cartel, it's unclear if they ever actually called themselves that. The name comes directly from the pseudonym of Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, known as H-2, a little known underworld figure who U.S. investigators claim led the organization.
But the roots of the H-2 group actually trace back to a former faction of the Sinaloa Cartel run by the Beltrán Leyva family, and most prominently the three brothers Arturo, Alfredo, and Héctor. The brothers were raised in the same Sinaloa sierra region as other well-known traffickers like Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, and by some reports, are even distant cousins of the Guzmán family. For years, the Beltrán Leyva brothers worked as close associates of Guzmán and were even reputedly close enough to have managed El Chapo's business interests for him during his first stint in prison in the 90s before his 2001 escape.
All that changed in January 2008 when the Mexican army arrested Alfredo in the state capital of Sinaloa - the humid city of Culiacan. Alfredo’s brothers believed that Chapo Guzmán had set him up. They were allegedly behind the revenge murder of one of Chapo's sons later that year, and the ensuing schism led to a bloody turf war between the newly independent Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) and Guzmán's faction of the Sinaloa Cartel.
In December 2009, Mexican authorities again hit the Beltrán Leyva brothers hard when a reported 200 members of the Navy special forces accompanied by a couple of tanks surrounded Arturo in a luxurious apartment leading to an intense firefight. Photos later leaked of Arturo, his T-shirt pulled up and his pants below his knees, and his bullet-pocked torso covered in blood-stained $100 dollar bills.
"Most of those guys from H-2 were the sicarios from the Beltrán Leyva Organization," said Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). "So they were the ones that fomented much of the violence under their direction."
After the death of Arturo, widely considered the Beltrán Leyva boss, the organization began to fragment as several lieutenants branched out on their own. But amid infighting and double-crossing, a number of capos with nicknames like La Barbie, El Indio, and El Grande, were all arrested in quick succession. However, one who remained at large was the middle brother, Hector Beltrán Leyva, known as El H.
remained on the lam for several years by hiding in plain sight. The drug lord used a fake name, posing as a wealthy businessman and art connoisseur, while his second in command, the previously mentioned Patrón Sánchez, or H-2, ran the business. Hector would eventually be arrested by the Mexican army while dining in a seafood restaurant in the popular expat city of San Miguel Allende in 2014.
Soon after that H-2 took control, because as Vigil said, he knew "the sources and supply, the drug routes that the Beltrán Leyva's used, and also their contacts, and one of the contacts they quickly developed was General Salvador Cienfuegos."
During the fragmentation of the BLO, a second important development took place. Another Beltrán Leyva lieutenant who evaded capture, Fausto Isidro Meza Flores, became an important player in his own right in northern Sinaloa and the border state of Sonora, and remained on good terms with H-2.
There is a five million dollar bounty on the head of the elusive 38-year-old crime boss Meza Flores, who remains at large.
Meza Flores, more commonly known as Chapo Isidro, or facetiously as the Other Chapo, is another seldom discussed figure in the Mexican criminal landscape, even though he controls one of the most lucrative plazas just south of the United States.
U.S. law enforcement first became aware of General Cienfuegos connection to organized crime in late-2013 because of his relationship with Chapo Isidro, according to the New York Times, which claimed that the link wasn't investigated further because of pushback from both American and Mexican authorities at the time.
In the early 2010s, the DEA maintained a quiet presence in Mexico and is known to have played a role in the arrest of Chapo Guzmán in 2014, and again after his escape from prison and rearrest in 2016. But Guzmán wasn't the only criminal on the U.S. government's radar back then.
Around 2013, U.S. authorities became aware of the relationship between these traffickers and the Nayarit State Attorney General, Edgar Veytia, known as El Diablo—the Devil.
While the arrest of Chapo Guzmán, his extradition, and the ensuing court case in New York made international news, the key development related to H-2 was actually the arrest in San Diego and guilty plea of Veytia in 2019. Veytia and other corrupt officials under his supervision worked with H-2 to facilitate drug shipments, release members from prison after being arrested for drug-related crimes, and even assist the group in carrying out murders and other violent acts, specifically mentioning Veytia's involvement in covering up the murder of an unnamed rival of H-2 in 2015, according to U.S. officials.
When a New York court sentenced Veytia' to 20 years in September 2019, Richard P. Donoghue, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York used it as a chance to let it be known that they weren't done yet.
“When Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán was sentenced to life imprisonment, we warned that there were more days of reckoning to come. The sentence imposed on this corrupt Mexican government official makes this just such a day,” stated Donoghue. “Neither Mexican cartel leaders nor corrupt officials who assist them should sleep well tonight. We are coming for you.”
In retrospect, this may have been a direct threat to General Cienfuegos.
On wiretaps during the Veytia and H-2 investigation, anonymous U.S. law enforcement sources claimed that they began picking up on a powerful underworld figure known as El Padrino, who they suspected was a high-ranking Mexican military official. However, the major break in the case came when agents eavesdropping on communications between members of H-2 picked up on the mention that the Godfather was on tv. When the agents turned on the tube, they saw General Cienfuegos.
The Department of Justice seemed to confirm the general's long-standing connection to some faction of the BLO when it stated in its detention memo that there are "numerous direct communications between [Cienfuegos] and a senior leader of the H-2 Cartel, including communications in which [Cienfuegos] discussed his historical assistance to another drug trafficking organization."
Both the Veytia and Cienfuegos investigations ended in February 2017, the same month that H-2 and eleven associates died in a firefight with multiple Mexican Navy helicopters in Tepic, the state capital of Nayarit. Other members of the organization have fallen in the years since, including H-2's brother, Jesús Ricardo Patrón Sánchez, El H3, who allegedly took over leadership in his wake and was arrested in February 2019.
"H-2 is a shadow of their former selves," said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican security official turned analyst. "Whatever remains of that is with Chapo Isidro."
While the "Other Chapo", Isidro Meza Flores, remains lesser-known, the U.S. has made it clear that they are investigating him. In September 2017 officials put a five million dollar bounty on the elusive 38-year-old crime boss who remains at large. But that may not be for much longer, especially after the recent blows to the H-2 Cartel and the collaborating government officials who may have helped protect him.
"He is certainly a target for the DEA," said Hope. "But how close they are to catching him, I'm not sure."
Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos in Mexico City on April 16, 2016. He collaborated with drug cartels during his time in the role, according to U.S investigators. RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images