Chuck Grassley and Mexico's Corrupt Top Cop Both Want Dirt on the DEA

The Republican senator is investigating the DEA and FBI—and he's asking for help from lawyers for convicted Mexican official Genaro García Luna.
Chuck Grassley (R) is investigating the DEA and FBI—and he's asking for help from lawyers for convicted Mexican official Genaro García Luna (L
Chuck Grassley (R) is investigating the DEA and FBI—and he's asking for help from lawyers for convicted Mexican official Genaro García Luna (L). Images via Getty.

Politics can make strange bedfellows, but the overlapping goals of an 89-year-old Republican senator and a former top Mexican security official convicted of taking millions of dollars in cartel bribes are potentially making a pair for the ages.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley sent a letter last week to defense attorneys for Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former secretary of public security, who faces life in U.S. federal prison after he was found guilty in February on charges he helped smuggle tons of cocaine and leaked sensitive information to the Sinaloa Cartel and its boss, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.


The odd couple’s mutual interest is the disclosure of information gathered by U.S. law enforcement agencies that operate in Mexico, which could be politically weaponized in the hands of a powerful GOP senator—or helpful to García Luna’s efforts to overturn his conviction.

García Luna, 54, was the highest-ranking Mexican official ever to stand trial for narco-corruption in the U.S., and he worked closely for more than a decade with the FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) until he left office in 2012. During the trial, the defense showed the jury pictures of García Luna meeting President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among other top U.S. officials from that era. One witness was asked about a payoff to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a disputed allegation that left lingering questions about the government’s handling of evidence in the case. 

Grassley serves as a minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the DEA and FBI. The senator has been demanding answers about what the agencies knew and when about García Luna, particularly regarding his role in spending billions in American tax dollars sent to Mexico as security aid to combat the cartels.

At least so far, Grassley’s inquiries have been stonewalled. According to the senator’s office, the DEA, FBI, and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have all confirmed receiving his letters seeking evidence on García Luna, but they have yet to respond further or hand over any of the requested materials, including recordings, vetting records, and a range of other documents.


A spokesperson for the Department of Justice declined to comment in response to questions from VICE News, as did the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York, which prosecuted García Luna’s case. 

Absent cooperation from the feds, Grassley decided to reach out directly to García Luna’s court-appointed lawyers. In a letter sent April 6 to Judge Brian Cogan, who presided over García Luna’s trial, defense attorney Cesar de Castro said releasing materials Grassley seeks would require modifying a protective order that restricts the sharing of sensitive evidence.

De Castro wrote that he “sees no reason why the Senator should not be given access to the materials he has requested,” adding that, “if for some reason the government is unwilling to provide the United States Senate with the evidence in this case, the defense is happy to do so.”

“We believe that in preparing to provide these materials, the government may locate additional materials related to its investigation and witnesses that the defense did not receive and to which it was entitled,” de Castro wrote. 

In a statement to VICE News, Grassley called out DEA Administrator Anne Milgram and FBI Director Christopher Wray for being less transparent than one of the most crooked officials in Mexican history.

“It is disappointing that a corrupt, convicted drug trafficker has committed to being more responsive to government oversight efforts than U.S. government officials,” Grassley said. “Administrator Milgram’s and Director Wray’s silence raises even more questions about the management of foreign enforcement operations.”


On Tuesday, Judge Cogan pushed the issue back to García Luna’s defense team and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, issuing an order that said “if the parties do not agree to an amendment to the protective order to accommodate the Senator, [the] defendant may move to modify the protective order if there is a legal basis to do so.”

De Castro told VICE News that based on the judge’s order, he now plans to confer with federal prosecutors to see how they want to proceed.

“Based on our prior communications on this topic, I am not optimistic that it will agree to provide the materials,” de Castro said.

Legal experts who spoke to VICE News said the situation with Grassley and García Luna is definitely strange and possibly unprecedented. If Republicans held the majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley could pull levers to compel testimony or the release of evidence, but his minority position has left him sending sternly-worded letters that lack the power of a subpoena but still cannot be entirely ignored.

Bennett Gershman, a longtime professor at Pace Law School, said he couldn’t recall an equivalent situation in nearly 50 years of teaching criminal and constitutional law.

“I'm not going to say unprecedented, but it seems very unusual,” Gershman said. “It’s clearly a question of separation of powers and whether or not Congress can intrude like this into a recently concluded criminal case where there might be very confidential materials.” 


Many aspects of García Luna’s case have remained cloaked in secrecy, with federal prosecutors filing documents under seal to protect both ongoing investigations and cooperating witnesses who could face threats or intimidation for testifying. Several former cartel bosses who cut deals in exchange for leniency in their own cases took the stand against García Luna, including the brother of fugitive Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Jesús Reynaldo Zambada aka El Rey claimed he personally oversaw the delivery of multi-million dollar bribes to García Luna. On cross-examination, El Rey denied paying a bribe directly to López Obrador, but defense questions about the alleged payoff have since been a source of mystery and controversy. While López Obrador vehemently denied any wrongdoing, the defense has pointed to a lack of records about El Mayo’s brother’s debriefings with U.S. agents.

Prior to testifying against García Luna, El Rey “met with the government and law enforcement approximately 118 times,” de Castro wrote in his letter seeking to hand over material to Grassley. But the notes and records typically kept at those meetings by federal agents, including a form known as a “DEA 6” report, are missing, the defense attorney said. 

The materials handed over to him “did not include a single DEA 6 report,” and documentation from only four meetings with the FBI. (Prosecutors said during the trial that many of the meetings without notes were routine preparation for testimony.)


Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York, said that any agreement to hand over documents to Grassley would be predicated on a guarantee that sensitive materials would be handled appropriately.

“A prosecutor secure in the knowledge that they had acted ethically and appropriately should not be concerned about Grassley’s request,” Klapper said. “However, I would want some type of assurance that Grassley and his committee weren’t going to violate protective orders or sealing orders because if they did so, witnesses’ lives would definitely be in danger.”

What happens next remains unclear. García Luna’s defense has already informed the judge of their intent to file a motion for a new trial, writing that, "since the verdict, several individuals, including former law enforcement officials, have contacted us with potential new evidence favorable to the defense."

Rory Little, a former associate deputy attorney general during the Clinton era, said the decision over what to do about Grassley is likely ongoing at the highest levels of the Justice Department. He recalled a similar situation in his career where Grassley was demanding information about “a controversial criminal case,” which he declined to give specifics about.

Little, now a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, said in that instance, the Justice Department and senator managed to come to an agreement without a judge’s intervention.

“We negotiated it, we worked it out,” Little said. “We did whatever satisfied the senator and his staff.” 

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton