With a trial looming against a former top Mexican security official accused of taking millions in cartel bribes, federal authorities in the United States are accused of enlisting a jailhouse informant to pose as a Russian mobster and make hundreds of hours of secret recordings, which are now being used as evidence in the high-profile case.
Genaro García Luna, who was Mexico’s head of public security under former President Felipe Calderón, was allegedly caught on tape asking for what he thought was the Russian mafia’s help in targeting potential witnesses against him, including a brother of Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
But in a July 14 court filing, García Luna’s lawyer claims the government is basing its accusations on “two minutes of largely incomprehensible recordings” made by an informant who’s a convicted child pornographer. The informant was allegedly twice denied bail and “suffering abuse within the jail by inmates and guards alike.”
“When he was housed in a cell next to Mr. Garcia Luna, he saw an opportunity,” defense attorney César de Castro wrote. “He would try to set up Mr. Garcia Luna in order to lessen his inevitably long sentence. He befriended Mr. Garcia Luna and did his best to gain his trust.”
Ultimately, according to de Castro, the informant wore a wire that was “recording 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for over a 20-day period,” resulting in over 500 hours of tape. Only brief transcripts have been made public so far, not the actual recordings. Most of the conversations with García Luna are “unintelligible,” the defense attorney says, but there’s no dispute about his client mentioning the names of would-be witnesses, including El Mayo’s brother.
The allegations about García Luna, who once worked closely with the U.S. government, are the latest twist ahead of a much-anticipated trial currently scheduled to start in October.
The case is before the same federal judge in Brooklyn who presided over the trial of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, which ended with a conviction in 2019 and yielded multiple bombshells about alleged corruption in Mexico.
While some involved—including the current and former presidents of Mexico—have publicly denied the allegations, García Luna is the first political figure caught in the Chapo fallout to plead not guilty and face a trial.
Prosecutors have said “numerous witnesses, including several former high-ranking members of the Sinaloa Cartel, will testify about bribes,” fueling speculation about who will take the stand—and what fresh dirt they might unearth.
AMERICA’S DRUG WARRIOR ALLEGEDLY ON THE CARTEL PAYROLL
One witness against El Chapo was his partner’s brother, Jesús Reynaldo Zambada, alias El Rey, who testified that he first met García Luna around 2005 when he was head of the Mexican equivalent of the FBI and was paid $3 million for his help protecting the cartel’s operations. After becoming the top federal police official in Mexico under Calderón, El Rey said, García Luna received another $3-6 million from the Sinaloa Cartel, while another cartel faction forked out an estimated $50 million.
Prosecutors have said García Luna’s job on the payroll was to deliver “safe passage for its drug shipments, sensitive law enforcement information about investigations into the cartel, and information about rival drug cartels.”
García Luna’s attorney noted in court filings that his client once worked “in close partnership with the United States,” and said “allegations of corruption have persisted for decades and despite his opponents’ fervent attempts to do so, have never been substantiated.”
A trained engineer who started working for the Mexican government in 1989 at age 21, García Luna first rose to national prominence in the early 2000s under then-president Vicente Fox, who dissolved one corrupt federal police force and put García Luna in charge of running its replacement. In that post, García Luna’s defense says, he worked with the U.S. government and FBI as he “investigated and fired over 3,000 corrupt police officers, largely on the grounds of corruption,” and sent his own officers to Quantico, Virginia, for special training.
Under Calderón, the hard-charging and camera-ready García Luna became the public face of the drug war as Mexico deployed the military in a bloody campaign to fracture the cartels. He met personally with everyone from Hillary Clinton to John McCain, his lawyer says, with the Americans offering “support for his efforts against the cartels and, most importantly, his assistance in the hunt for El Chapo,” who somehow always seemed to evade capture.
El Chapo is now serving a life sentence in America’s most secure prison, but he made a mockery of the Mexican justice system with repeated jailbreaks. There were no escapes when García Luna ran his country’s prisons, his lawyer says, and he ordered the arrest of guards involved in El Chapo’s 2001 prison escape. He also claims to have “personally arrested El Chapo’s brother,” Arturo Guzmán, who was later murdered in prison.
García Luna eventually left the Mexican government and moved to Florida, where he was working as a security consultant when he was arrested in December 2019. Prosecutors allege he used shell companies and straw purchasers to hide assets, including a yacht and properties worth millions of dollars. He’s also been charged with lying on immigration documents.
De Castro maintains García Luna was thoroughly and repeatedly vetted by the U.S. government—and once considered an key asset to bilateral security operations in Mexico.
“With financial aid and the expertise of United States government personnel, Mr. Garcia Luna was able to develop a world-class intelligence platform to fight the cartels,” the defense attorney wrote, noting his client even contributed to the capture and extradition of El Rey Zambada—the very witness he is now accused of plotting against.
GREG THE RUSSIAN MOBSTER / UNDERCOVER AGENT
On June 15, prosecutors sought permission from Judge Brian Cogan to admit new evidence not covered by the indictment against García Luna, which focuses on drug trafficking by the Sinaloa Cartel.
The government said that in the fall of 2020, while García Luna was held at a federal jail in Brooklyn, law enforcement officers arranged to put him in touch with an undercover agent “purporting to go by the name ‘Greg’ and to be a member of the Russian mafia.”
The intro to Greg was made by a source prosecutors identified as “Individual 1,” someone who had been speaking with García Luna and was willing to secretly record their conversations.
In one recording from November 11, 2020, quoted by prosecutors, García Luna begins by saying, “Nobody has confidence with the Russians.”
The informant then mentions, “setting up with Raymond or Reynaldo,” which prosecutors say is a reference to El Rey Zambada. García Luna responds with, “Luis,” allegedly the name of a co-defendant who remains jailed in Mexico. Then they say to each other:
Individual 1: Kill the witnesses, kill the . . .
García Luna: Family.
Individual 1: The family.
García Luna’s next line is marked with a symbol for unintelligible, but the informant goes on to suggest that García Luna contact Greg: “He could help with a lot, I’m telling you.”
The response from García Luna is also unintelligible and hard to follow until he says, “he knows this guy…he took out the witness,” to which Individual 1 replies: “And that’s it.”
On December 31, 2020, they allegedly phoned “Greg,” the undercover agent together, but prosecutors have so far offered no transcript or details about this conversation.
Individual 1, according to García Luna’s attorney, is Ruslan Mirvis, who court records show is facing 15 years to life in prison after pleading guilty last December to charges related to child pornography and sexual abuse. Attorneys for Mirvis did not respond to a request for comment.
Mirvis allegedly shared a jail housing unit with García Luna and had access to his personal items, including evidence from his case. De Castro says Mirvis went to the government thinking “he could help them with a big fish,” but instead delivered hours of mumbly recordings that don’t prove anything incriminating.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York, which is handling García Luna’s case, declined to comment.
Prosecutors have also asked the judge to allow evidence of García Luna’s “attempts to silence journalists through harassment and bribes,” including one instance where he allegedly “used money amassed from a corrupt kickback scheme to pay bribes to a news organization to prevent journalists at the organization from publishing negative stories about him.”
One Mexican journalist, prosecutors say, was subjected to “a multi-year campaign of harassment and threats” for investigating García Luna.
While prosecutors did not name the reporter who was targeted, De Castro suspects it is Anabel Hernández, who has written several books about the Mexican drug trade, accusing García Luna and other top officials of being in the pocket of the cartels.
Hernández has “a personal axe to grind” against García Luna, the defense attorney wrote, saying she “has been accused of making defamatory statements throughout her career.”
In a statement to VICE News, Hernández said de Castro’s court filing “reflects a desperate client.”
“The accusation against Garcia Luna in the United States explains the circumstance by itself,” she said. “I get the impression that there is an intention of the lawyer and his client to manipulate me and I am not going to fall into that situation.”
The judge in García Luna’s case has already granted the prosecution’s request for an anonymous and partially sequestered jury, similar to the security precautions taken during El Chapo’s trial, with Cogan saying prosecutors showed the defendant “likely has the intent and resources to engage in witness intimidation and harassment.”
Whether Cogan allows the latest claims about witness tampering and harassment of journalists will be decided in the coming weeks.