In this June 2, 2011 file photo, Mexico's Genaro Garcia Luna speaks during a ceremony to designate June 2 as the Federal Police Day in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini, File)
In the months leading up to the trial of Genaro García Luna, the highest-ranking Mexican law enforcement official ever to face charges of narco-corruption in the United States, federal prosecutors made it sound like they had a mountain of evidence. Court filings described more than 1.2 million pages of documents, thousands of recordings, and a roster of cooperating witnesses who could potentially testify about delivering multi-million dollar bribes.
But now, with opening arguments in the trial set to start Monday, the high-stakes case hardly seems like a slam dunk. In a ruling handed down Thursday evening, Judge Brian Cogan—who also presided over the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán—delivered a blow the prosecution, restricting some types of evidence from being heard by the jury and revealing the names of several likely cooperating witnesses, some of whom appear to have major credibility issues.Cogan’s ruling, first reported by VICE News, referenced cooperators (former high-ranking cartel members who cut deals with U.S. prosecutors to testify in exchange for reduced sentences) who were allegedly involved in acts of cannibalism, along with another who has expressed beliefs in aliens, witchcraft, and the Illuminati. The judge also granted a request by the defense to block evidence of García Luna’s “expensive lifestyle” after he left the Mexican government in 2012 and moved to Miami, where he worked as a private security consultant, lived in a waterfront mansion, had access to a yacht, and enjoyed other trappings of luxury. Cogan ruled that prosecutors had so far failed to present any proof that García Luna’s lifestyle was “financed with cartel money.”
García Luna’s attorneys, Cogan said, will be allowed to show the jury photographs of the defendant meeting with high-level U.S. officials during his time leading the Mexican equivalent of the FBI from 2000 to 2006, and later during his tenure as Mexico’s secretary of public security, which ended when he left office in 2012. The defense has said García Luna interacted with former President Barack Obama, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the late Sen. John McCain, along with former directors of the CIA, FBI, and DEA, among others.On the flipside, Cogan ruled that the defense will not be allowed to tell the jury about all the ways top U.S. officials have publicly praised García Luna over the years. To present that evidence, Cogan said, García Luna would have to call the officials—who are now presumably less effusive in their praise now that he’s under indictment—to “testify as character witnesses,” which would then make them subject to cross-examination by the government.Prosecutors still have no shortage of ammunition to use against García Luna. Once hailed as a hard-charging “supercop” willing to take out cartel bosses by any means necessary, Cogan’s ruling confirmed the identities of several potential cooperators who might have firsthand knowledge of García Luna’s alleged corruption. The list includes the brother of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who previously testified during El Chapo’s trial that he once handed García Luna a briefcase stuffed with more than $3 million cash.
Another potential cooperator named in Cogan’s ruling is Edgar Veytia, the former attorney general for the Mexican state of Nayarit. Nicknamed “El Diablo,” Veytia was arrested while attempting to cross the U.S. border in 2017 and later sentenced to 20 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to charges he “used his official position to protect drug trafficking activities.”But Veytia is potentially problematic as a witness. Prosecutors had sought to prevent the defense “from asking Veytia about adverse credibility findings by various arms of the federal government and the related decision not to offer him a cooperation agreement,” indicating the Department of Justice—which is currently prosecuting García Luna—had found him to be unreliable. Cogan ordered the government to “produce all materials in its possession concerning Veytia’s credibility.”Cogan’s ruling also mentions Alex Cifuentes-Villa, a Colombian cocaine trafficker who was once close to El Chapo. Cifuentes-Villa helped prosecutors convict the former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin in 2019 by testifying against him. He faced an aggressive cross-examination by El Chapo’s lawyers, who highlighted inconsistencies in his statements to U.S. investigators. More troubling was what jurors were not allowed to hear: That Cifuentes-Villa allegedly helped procure child prostitutes that El Chapo allegedly drugged and raped.
Cogan precluded jurors from hearing that evidence, deeming it too prejudicial and unreliable. The judge also blocked defense attorneys from questioning Cifuentes-Villa about his previously stated beliefs about aliens and the Illuminati. García Luna’s defense will be similarly limited, Cogan ruled, because such questions ”would distract the jury, confuse the issues, and waste time.”Cifuentes-Villa is hardly the only potential cooperator with a disturbing past. Cogan’s ruling includes a sub-section entitled “Cannibalism.” The individuals involved are not named, and Cogan barred the defense from asking about “prior acts of cannibalism” during the trial, writing that such questions would be “highly inflammatory and distracting.”One other potential witness identified by Cogan’s ruling is Sergio Villarreal Barragán aka El Grande, a former high-ranking member of a cartel called the Beltrán Leyva Organization now serving time in the U.S. prison system. Also on the list is Miguel Arriola Marquez, another major Mexican trafficker sentenced in 2010 to 20 years in prison after federal prosecutors in Colorado linked him to smuggling several thousand kilos of cocaine worth tens of millions of dollars.
During jury selection this week, prosecutors indicated the case against García Luna will hinge almost entirely on the testimony of these ex-cartel operators. “This is a cooperator case, that’s what this is,” prosecutor Saritha Komatireddy said at one point. Komatireddy also told the court that “the evidence of this case consists of witness testimony.”
Prosecutors may have dealt themselves a tough hand if cooperating witness testimony is indeed the only card they have to play against García Luna. Several jurors, including two who were chosen to sit on the 12-person panel that will decide the case, expressed skepticism about the credibility of ex-traffickers who have cut deals with the government.One juror, an older man, used the word “dirty” to describe cooperating witnesses on a questionnaire he was required to submit to the court. Asked by the court to explain what he meant, the man replied: “Plea bargaining, reduced sentences, I think that’s what they’re doing… It’s self defense, I guess.”García Luna’s attorney, Cesar de Castro, declined to comment. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York, which is prosecuting the case, also declined to comment.Bill Purpura, one of the attorneys who represented El Chapo during his trial, told VICE News that García Luna appears to have a much stronger defense than his former client. Purpura said García Luna’s lawyers will likely attempt to portray him as “basically a hardworking cop who’s now in the crosshairs of these cooperators.” “In other cases they’ve had wire intercepts and everything else they had against Chapo—I would list all the things they don't have and emphasize what it’s coming down to is cooperators,” Purpura said. “With all this time the government had to make their case and all their power, this is all they could come up with?”
This is all they could come up with?