Mexico’s ‘Top Cop’ Could Beat His Cartel Corruption Case and Embarrass the US

U.S. prosecutors called several former cartel leaders to testify against Genaro García Luna but offered no hard evidence that he accepted more than $200 million in bribes.
Mexico's Secretary of Public Safety Genaro Garcia Luna attends a press conference on the sidelines of an American Police Community meeting in Mexico City, Oct. 8, 2010.
Mexico's Secretary of Public Safety Genaro Garcia Luna attends a press conference on the sidelines of an American Police Community meeting in Mexico City, Oct. 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

When the narco-corruption trial of Mexico’s former top law enforcement official, Genaro García Luna, started last month in Brooklyn, his lawyer told the jury what evidence to expect from the prosecution: "No money. No photos. No videos. No texts. No emails. No records.”

Nearly a month later during his closing statement, García Luna’s defense attorney, Cesar de Castro repeated that same refrain again. Despite calling more than two dozen witnesses to testify, including nine cooperators with cartel connections, federal prosecutors lack much in the way of corroborating evidence. Three witnesses claimed to have been present when multi-million dollar bribes were delivered to García Luna, but there’s no smoking gun to back up their claims. 


"They're asking you to convict a man solely on the words of some of the most notorious and ruthless criminals in the history of the world," de Castro told the jury on Wednesday. He called the government’s cooperators a bunch of "killers, kidnappers, torturers, and fraudsters."

García Luna is the highest-ranking Mexican government official ever to face a trial in the United States. He’s charged with helping the Sinaloa Cartel take out rival groups, ensuring safe passage through Mexico for literal tons of cocaine destined for New York and other cities.

"These guys are like the FedEx of cocaine,” prosecutor Saritha Komatireddy told the jury in her closing statement. “They use trains. They use ships. They use containers. They use submarines… they even used the Mexico City airport."

García Luna has also been accused of leaking sensitive DEA intelligence, providing cartel members with police credentials and uniforms, having federal police officers help unload drug shipments and serve as bodyguards for cartel bosses, and lying on his immigration papers when applying for citizenship after leaving Mexico and relocating to Miami following his exit from the Mexican government in 2012.

The witnesses against him included the brother of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who claimed he personally delivered $5 million worth of bribes during two meetings with García Luna at a restaurant in Mexico City. Another was a hulking former cartel lieutenant known as El Grande, who testified about monthly payments that started at around $1.5 million and grew over time as García Luna gained influence in the government, eventually landing a cabinet-level position under former president Felipe Calderón starting in 2006. While these witnesses and others testified under oath, there was little hard proof to corroborate the allegations—just the word of the cooperators, who receive reduced sentences and immigration benefits for helping U.S. investigators.


"The government's lack of evidence is shocking," de Castro said. "Almost everything about these cooperators' testimony is unbelievable, inconsistent, and defies common sense… this lineup of crime bosses simply cannot be trusted."

Some members of the jury, which consists of seven women and five men, seemed to be nodding along with points raised by de Castro during his closing statement, perhaps a sign that the high-stakes trial of García Luna is on the verge of ending in disaster for federal prosecutors. Fewer than 1 percent of defendants charged with federal crimes win acquittals at jury trials, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, meaning that even with a relatively weak case the odds strongly favor the prosecution.   

Following a botched attempt to prosecute Mexico’s former secretary of defense in Brooklyn in late 2020—a case that ended with the charges being dropped and the defendant, Salvador Cienfuegos, being allowed to return home a free man—the U.S. Department of Justice now faces a moment of reckoning. Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who handled high-profile narcotics cases, warned that an acquittal could have long-lasting ramifications for the U.S. Department of Justice and efforts to rein in corruption in Mexico.


“If he (García Luna) is acquitted, it should make the DOJ and DEA more wary of bringing these cases without stronger evidence,” Klapper said. “As was famously said in The Wire, ‘You come at the king, you best not miss.’

Klapper, who is now a defense attorney, said it’s not unusual for prosecutors to lean heavily on cooperators in a case like the one against García Luna, but the strategy carries risk.

“While it is completely acceptable to bring a case based entirely on cooperating witnesses, it makes getting a conviction more difficult,” Klapper said. “It just takes one juror to think, ‘These are all dirty witnesses who want a sentence reduction, why should I believe them?’”

Members of García Luna’s jury are anonymous for security reasons given the cartel nexus in the case, but during the jury selection process at least two of them expressed skepticism about the credibility of cooperators who cut deals with the government in exchange for reduced sentences. Prosecutors have taken pains to convey to the jurors that, under the law, the testimony of just one witness can be enough to return a guilty verdict.

Komatireddy, the lead prosecutor in the García Luna case, told the jury in her closing statement that the government had met its burden of proof.

"They're the only people who can tell you what it was like to run the largest drug trafficking organization in Mexico and the dirty cops who helped them," Komatireddy said of the cooperators. "I'm not asking you like them. These people have done horrible things. They're criminals—but it takes one to know one."


Throughout the case, prosecutors have struggled to show the jury evidence that suggests García Luna was living lavishly in Mexico from all the alleged bribe money. He owned an upscale home in Mexico City and another house in the countryside, and he had two Harley Davidson motorcycles and a Land Rover for vehicles. He also owned an old Ford Mustang, which his wife, Cristina Pereyra, the only witness called by the defense, testified was a fixer-upper project for her husband and his brother. Pereyra also owned two restaurants.

During his closing statement, de Castro added up the "ridiculous amounts" of money that witnesses claimed García Luna had taken from the Sinaloa Cartel between 2001, when he was in charge of the Mexican equivalent of the FBI, and 2012 when the Calderón administration ended. The grand total was at least $274.3 million.

“If he had really been paid $300 million,” de Castro said, “he would’ve had to spend it somewhere.”

Presiding over the case is Judge Brian Cogan, who also handled the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, which ended with a conviction in 2019 and included some of the same witnesses who testified against García Luna. Cogan has restricted the prosecution from showing what could have been damaging evidence of wealth acquired by García Luna after he left the Mexican government in 2012 at the end of the Calderón administration. 

García Luna relocated his family to Miami and started a private security company with wealthy business partners, who paid for him to live in a waterfront mansion with a yacht. The government of Mexico has sued García Luna, alleging he obtained and laundered more than $700 million through fraudulent contracts, but Cogan deemed that evidence inadmissible because prosecutors couldn’t link it to cartel bribes.


A recently unsealed court filing described "deceptive financial conduct in which the defendant used corporate shell companies and third parties to purchase property, pay employees, and pay personal expenses for himself and his family, specifically for the purpose of concealing the true source of the funds." But the jury never heard about any of that because of Cogan’s rulings.

Komatireddy tried to address the discrepancy between the massive bribes and García Luna’s relatively modest life in Mexico, claiming he’d intentionally kept a low profile, concealing his assets while also sharing some of the cartel cash with underlings and other associates. 

"Politicians can't be flashy,” Komatireddy said. “For politicians, money is not just money. It can buy people, it can buy power, it can buy influence, it can buy favors."

For years, García Luna was seemingly a trusted U.S. ally in Mexico. He became the public face of Mexico’s militarized war against the cartels under Calderón, and early in the trial the defense showed the jury pictures of his meetings with then-president Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton when she served as secretary of state. García Luna also met with the heads of the DEA, FBI, CIA, and other agencies, and was responsible for overseeing hundreds of millions worth of U.S. tax dollars sent to Mexico as security aid to ostensibly combat organized crime.


"There's no chance Mr. Obama would meet with Mr. García Luna if the DEA, CIA, State Department, or any other agency had intelligence that Mr. Garcia Luna was corrupt," de Castro said in his closing statement to the jury.

“We could pick a bunch of school teachers to testify, but school teachers don't run international drug cartels”

Prosecutor Erin Reid gave a rebuttal to de Castro, telling the jurors: "The evidence has shown this is a man of two faces. It is shocking that at the same time he was meeting with President Obama… he was working hand in hand with the Sinaloa Cartel."

De Castro noted that of the 27 witnesses that the government called to testify during the trial, only seven claimed to have met García Luna, and only three of them claimed to have made bribe payments. 

While several cooperating witnesses corroborated each other by describing key events—including an alleged kidnapping of García Luna by a Sinaloa Cartel leader in 2008—the details of their stories were not always consistent. And some only testified about secondhand information, which in some cases was only provided after García Luna was arrested. One was Edgar Veytia, a former attorney general in the Mexican state of Nayarit, serving a lengthy prison sentence for corruption. 

Veytia, who admitted to killings and acts of torture on behalf of a Sinaloa Cartel faction, claimed he’d heard a former governor of Nayarit say that Garcia Luna had given instructions to support El Chapo’s side of the cartel. But on cross-examination, Veytia acknowledged that he’d met multiple times—for over 150 hours—with prosecutors and federal agents but didn’t say anything about Garcia Luna until after he’d been sentenced to 20 years—and after Garcia Luna’s arrest had been on the news. 


Asked to explain why he failed to mention Garcia Luna previously, Veytia said nobody ever bothered to inquire: "The questions they were asking me were very specific."

Ken Magidson, a former U.S. Attorney in Texas who oversaw the prosecutions of several major cartel bosses, said Garcia Luna’s case will hinge on the credibility of the cooperators. While having taped phone calls and other evidence can be helpful, he said, it’s not always possible. 

“You’re always going to have cooperators that have committed crimes because who else is going to testify about a conspiracy?” Magidson said. “A conspiracy is always hatched behind closed doors, it’s not done in the light of day. It’s done in darkness. It’s a wink and a nod and an agreement. They’re not taped. This isn’t CSI on TV where you live in an ideal world.”

The prosecutors in Garcia Luna’s case echoed that sentiment in their closing statements on Wednesday. Reid conceded that the cooperators are unsavory characters: "We could pick a bunch of school teachers to testify, but school teachers don't run international drug cartels," she said.

But even with no other evidence, Reid said, the jury should still convict Garcia Luna. 

“You don't need a wiretap or a video or a phone call,” Reid said. “You had the best evidence—the people who paid him."

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