El Chapo’s Inside Man Was America’s Closest Partner in Mexico

Genaro García Luna's conviction for taking millions in cartel bribes while working closely with the DEA revealed the epic futility of the drug war.
The U.S. has successfully prosecuted El Chapo (L) and Genaro García Luna (R).
The U.S. has successfully prosecuted El Chapo (L) and Genaro García Luna (R).

Photos via Getty Images. 

BROOKLYN - For more than a decade, Genaro García Luna was America’s man in Mexico. From 2001, when he took over the Mexican equivalent of the FBI, until 2012 when he left office as a cabinet-level official in charge of all federal law enforcement, he worked hand-in-hand with the DEA and other U.S. agencies that wage the war on drugs on both sides of the border. He was his country’s own J. Edgar Hoover, with a legacy that became even uglier after this week.


On Tuesday, the 54-year-old García Luna was convicted by a Brooklyn federal jury of being a double agent. He was found guilty of taking massive bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel, enabling Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and his partners to smuggle thousands of tons of cocaine north across the Rio Grande. But after hearing testimony from U.S. agents about the federal police in Mexico leaking information about DEA operations and impeding efforts to capture El Chapo under García Luna, it must be asked: Was the U.S. oblivious of Mexican corruption or complicit?

The trial of García Luna lasted for nearly a month and was as notable for what was said in the courtroom as what went ignored. Unlike the trial of El Chapo, which took place in the same court before the same judge with several of the same witnesses, García Luna’s case barely received any domestic media attention. Only a few reporters from U.S. outlets attended consistently, the rest were from Mexico, where President Andres Manuel López Obrador ensured the trial was front-page news as witness testimony raised more questions about his own alleged link to Sinaloa Cartel corruption.


After El Chapo’s conviction in 2019, Justice Department officials held a press conference in front of the courthouse to declare victory before national TV feeds and reporters from every major newspaper. When the verdict against García Luna came down this week—unanimously guilty on all five counts—there was no public victory celebration. Instead, the prosecutor’s office issued a three-page press release declaring the outcome “a shining light for the rule of law, right over wrong, and justice over injustice.” 

Few who sat through García Luna’s trial left feeling it created a shining example for the rule of law. The government’s case hinged solely on the testimony of murderous cartel leaders and corrupt Mexican officials who cut deals to receive reduced sentences and immigration benefits. Like El Chapo, García Luna now faces a life sentence, but as a result some other criminals as bad or worse than him will be allowed to go free sooner than expected and avoid deportation back to Mexico. Locking them all up and throwing away the key isn’t necessarily justice either, but the lingering impression after both the El Chapo and García Luna trials is nearly anyone can snitch their way out of U.S. prison by dishing dirt on the right defendant.


In the end, the jurors found the testimony credible enough to convict. Some of what the witnesses said corroborated each other, with three former high-ranking Sinaloa Cartel members claiming they were present for multi-million dollar cash payments delivered to García Luna. The transactions were mundane—at a safehouse near a shopping mall in Mexico City; a French restaurant across the street from the U.S. Embassy; and at a carwash in Guadalajara. 


A photo of Genaro García Luna marked "Government Exhibit 1" in his prosecution, along with a copy of an invoice of an alleged payment to Mexico's El Universal newspaper. The payment is labeled as being for a "campaign to rescue tourism," but a witness testified it was to silence negative coverage. (Image by VICE News / EDNY U.S. Attorney's Office)

A cartel accountant—a witness so sensitive the judge would not allow courtroom sketch artists to draw his face—showed drug ledgers with money being paid to kidnappers who snatched García Luna off a highway in broad daylight to remind him that, as another witness put it, “anything is possible.” A corrupt state official brought an invoice for an alleged payment to one of Mexico’s largest newspapers, El Universal, to silence press coverage of the incident. (El Universal published an editorial that called the allegation “totally false.”)

It didn’t matter that prosecutors had no evidence to link García Luna to hidden bank accounts or a lavish lifestyle in Mexico. There were no text messages, wiretapped phone calls, emails, or any sort of hard evidence—no smoking gun to prove beyond all doubt that García Luna was dirty. What the prosecution had was the cynical assumption that the cartels have corrupted every cop and politician in Mexico, and plenty of compelling testimony to affirm that belief. 


Photos of a narco-submarine filled with cocaine bricks seized in the Pacific Ocean in 2009 by the U.S. Coast Guard were used as evidence against Genaro García Luna. (Photos via EDNY U.S. Attorney's Office)

In her closing statement, lead prosecutor Saritha Komatireddy drew a striking comparison to help the jury understand the vast scope of the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug trafficking empire, which remains just as powerful today as when El Chapo and García Luna were free.

“It is a multibillion dollar operation,” Komatireddy said. “It employs hundreds of people. And it moves cocaine across continents from South America through Mexico into the United States. When it comes to the logistics of this operation, these guys are like the FedEx of cocaine. They use trains, they use ships, they use containers, they use submarines. They traffic cocaine through the largest airport in one of the largest cities in the world, Mexico City. And when they ship cocaine, they shipped tons of it, literally tons of it.”


Cartel boss Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada’s brother, Jesús “El Rey” Zambada, testified that the cartel’s revenue on cocaine alone was over $3 billion, which is roughly equivalent to the entire annual budget of the DEA. García Luna’s agency policed the ports in Mexico, and the (alleged) bribe payments not only enabled the cartel to smuggle with impunity—uniformed federal officers would help unload the cocaine from planes at Mexico City’s airport. When El Chapo broke out of prison in 2001, El Rey arranged to have him picked up in a helicopter and driven into the Mexican capital with a police escort for safekeeping. 

El Mayo is still a fugitive and continues to lead a faction of the Sinaloa Cartel. According to his brother and other witnesses, he didn’t just corrupt García Luna—he bribed officials at every level of Mexican government, allegedly all the way to the presidency. 


On cross-examination, García Luna’s lead lawyer asked El Rey about a previous statement he made to U.S. investigators “about paying Andres Manuel López Obrador $7 million.” Rey initially said he did not recall such a payment, but when Cesar de Castro reviewed his notes and asked about another person—a prominent lawyer and former government official in Mexico City named Gabriel Regino—Rey replied: “I do remember paying him some money, that according to him, was for the campaign, but not [for] paying López Obrador.”

The government objected and requested a sidebar with the judge, out of earshot from the courtroom. The transcript of that conversation, obtained through the court reporter and first published by VICE News, showed that prosecutors did not dispute that Zambada had made the allegation. Komatireddy argued that the line of questioning “creates a sideshow,” and suggested there were security concerns.

“We're talking about a sitting president,” she said, according to the transcript, “and this witness has family in Mexico.” 

De Castro made it clear that the question came from a document he’d been provided by the government to prepare for cross-examination, but Judge Brian Cogan didn’t allow him to continue pressing Zambada for more details.

“If, indeed, he said something like that I see the relevance to his credibility,” Cogan said. “However, he says he didn't say it. That's the end of the story. So go on to something else.”


With that exchange inaudible to the rest of the courtroom, it was an awkward and confusing moment. The breaking news reports framed de Castro’s question as an allegation against López Obrador that El Rey had flatly denied, when a close reading of what was said suggests he acknowledged a payment “for the campaign,” though not directly to López Obrador himself.

De Castro also muddied the waters by saying the payment had occurred “when Mr. López Obrador was running for president against President Fox.” López Obrador ran for president in 2006—at the end of Vicente Fox’s term—but his opponent was Calderón, who would go on to win and appoint García Luna as secretary of public security.

Regino—nicknamed El Tigre—released a video with a tiger painting in the background as he denied being involved in any cartel payments. López Obrador issued strong denials and has since said he plans to sue de Castro for slander, sparking online backlash and threats against the court-appointed defense lawyer.

During El Chapo’s trial in late 2018, when López Obrador was president-elect, an unsealed court document revealed a similar allegation made by Rey Zambada. The prosecution sought to block Rey’s testimony about “a bribe allegedly paid to the current president of Mexico.” The government said then that “the bribe in question had been paid to an individual associated with the failed presidential campaign, over a decade ago, of the current president of Mexico.”


Former Sinaloa Cartel member Jesús "El Rey" Zambada (left) and his brother Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, one of the organization's active leaders. (Photos via EDNY U.S. Attorney's Office)

Calderón was also accused of corruption during García Luna’s trial, albeit even more indirectly. One witness—a former state attorney general in Mexico who pleaded guilty to taking millions in bribes—claimed his state’s governor had once returned from a meeting in Mexico City and delivered the message from Calderón and García Luna that “the line was Chapo,” and that state authorities should favor his faction of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Calderón denied the allegation, as he has consistently for years as rumors have swirled that he was fully aware of García Luna’s dealings with the Sinaloa Cartel.


When he was useful to the U.S., García Luna was portrayed as a crime-fighting hero. He was Calderón’s right-hand man , armed with hundreds of millions worth of U.S. tax dollars to buy state-of-the-art spy equipment, Blackhawk helicopters, and other military hardware, ostensibly to wipe out cartels tearing apart his country.

A former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Earl Anthony Wayne, was called to testify against García Luna, and said that by the end of the Calderón era in 2011 and 2012, the U.S. felt it could not rely on the federal police under García Luna to go after the Sinaloa Cartel.


Wayne also said he visited García Luna’s home and toured an intelligence center called “The Bunker” that was built with U.S. support. García Luna was later allowed to immigrate to the U.S. and receive both a green card and Global Entry, which allowed him to travel freely back and forth to Mexico while living in a waterfront mansion and yacht provided by his wealthy business partners in a security consulting firm.

Why it took more than a decade for Wayne and the U.S. government to say publicly that one of America’s closest allies in Mexico was suspected of being Chapo’s chief enabler remains unexplained, as do other aspects of the case. A DEA agent testified that the first interview after García Luna’s surprise 2019 arrest in Dallas was not taped because the recording equipment "was not functioning that day."

The defense complained to the judge that El Mayo’s brother appeared to have met with the government “47 times without a single note being taken by prosecutors, agents, or paralegals." Not every proffer is thoroughly documented, and prosecutors said many of the meetings were routine trial preparations, but there’s no record of whether Zambada mentioned López Obrador again in those conversations.

García Luna attempted to use his once-close relationship with the U.S. to his advantage, with the defense showing the jury photos of him meeting Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others as proof that he was a trusted partner in the drug war. García Luna also met with the heads of the DEA, FBI, CIA, and other U.S. agencies. But those relationships were only mentioned in passing. It was García Luna on trial, not the U.S. government.

The unavoidable implication from the prosecution was that the U.S. either failed to identify flagrant corruption by a senior official, or they chose to ignore it and adapt the relationship. While García Luna turned a blind eye toward El Mayo and El Chapo, rival cartels splintered as their leaders conveniently wound up captured, extradited, or dead. 

One former U.S. law enforcement official who worked on high-profile cartel investigations and requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing any pending cases told VICE News that it’s a constant balancing act: “You’re trying to battle cartels in a foreign country, you need the help of the Mexican government to do that,” they said. “Do you decide to work with them and battle cartels directly? Or do you decide the Mexican government is part of the problem and you have to address that to effectively battle the cartels? It’s gone back and forth over the years.”

Just three years ago, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn suffered humiliation when the Justice Department decided to drop corruption charges against Mexico’s former secretary of defense, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, amid a diplomatic standoff. Unlike with García Luna, the prosecution had a trove of incriminating cartel text messages to use as evidence. But after López Obrador threatened to restrict DEA and other U.S. operations in Mexico, Cienfuegos was allowed to return home a free man.

In the press release that followed García Luna’s guilty verdict, current DEA leader ​​Anne Milgram portrayed the conviction as a pivotal victory in the drug war.

“This case affirms DEA’s dedication to target and bring to justice those that enable the Sinaloa criminal drug cartel to flood the U.S. with deadly drugs that are killing Americans at unprecedented rates,” Milgram said. “It should send a clear message to all political leaders around the world that trade on positions of influence to further transnational organized crime.”

The other clear message is that narco-corruption only really matters when it jeopardizes the U.S. government’s ability to continue business as usual in the drug war, while American consumers play their own role by sending huge piles of cash south to pay for drugs and bribes to perpetuate the cycle.

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter.