How a Cartel Tricked Mexico’s Government to Steal 20 Tons of Cocaine

The trial of former top official Genaro García Luna has featured wild tales of cartel corruption in Mexico but nothing to implicate former presidents—yet.
Confiscated cocaine is shown to the press at a police hangar in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.
Confiscated cocaine is shown to the press at a police hangar in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano via CP)

The most significant narco-corruption trial in the history of the United States and Mexico has—at least so far—failed to deliver on lofty expectations from the press and public that Sinaloa Cartel members will testify about delivering massive bribes to their country’s former presidents.

Instead, the first week of the case featured ex-cartel members regaling the jury with tales of rampant corruption by slightly lower-level officials, describing wild escapades to recover cocaine seized by the Mexican government, buying missiles and spy equipment, and even kidnapping the man who is actually on trial.


Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have already called eight witnesses to testify against Genaro García Luna, who oversaw Mexico’s federal police and prisons as a cabinet-level official under former president Felipe Calderón from 2006 to 2012. Before that, García Luna was the director of a Mexican federal agency equivalent to the FBI under ex-president Vicente Fox in the early 2000s. But neither Calderón nor Fox have yet to be directly implicated in the charges against García Luna, who stands accused of taking hundreds of millions of dollars in payoffs while serving as the public face of the Mexican government’s bloody war against the cartels.

García Luna, 54, was a trusted ally of the United States for more than a decade, working hand in hand with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other federal agencies to ostensibly combat the cartels. But other than a few brief mentions of Sinaloa Cartel members evading capture thanks to DEA intelligence leaked by García Luna, there has been little talk in the courtroom about whether U.S. officials suspected he was dirty and chose to turn a blind eye.

The trial is scheduled to last at least eight weeks, with a verdict expected in early March, so there is still ample time for the bombshells to drop. But from the outset, the prosecution’s case against García Luna has appeared precariously thin, leaning heavily on the testimony of cooperating witnesses who cut deals with the government in exchange for reduced sentences. García Luna’s defense has told the jury there’s no hard evidence linking him to bribes, only “rumors, speculation, and the words of some of the biggest criminals in the world,” including several arrested and extradited during their client’s tenure atop Mexico’s security forces.


The first of those witnesses was Sergio Villarreal Barragán, a hulking former cartel lieutenant nicknamed El Grande who served under Arturo Beltrán Leyva, leader of a Sinaloa Cartel faction called the Beltrán Leyva Organization. El Grande was captured in Mexico in 2010 (during the Calderón era, while García Luna was still in office) and extradited two years later, where he struck a plea bargain with federal prosecutors that allowed him to be set free in 2019 and avoid deportation to Mexico, keeping him the U.S. indefinitely as a protected witness.

El Grande testified that he witnessed his boss deliver multi-million dollar bribes to García Luna and his deputies on dozens of occasions at a cartel safehouse in the southern part of Mexico City. The payments were made monthly, he said, starting out at around $1 million and growing over time as García Luna’s power and influence expanded within the Mexican government.

After Mexico’s 2006 election, when Calderón replaced Fox as president, García Luna became the secretary of public security, responsible for policing the country’s highways, airports, and seaports—all crucial for drug trafficking routes bringing in cocaine from Colombia and moving the shipments north across the U.S. border.

“We could go around freely, we could set up and take checkpoints wherever we wanted,” El Grande said. Even while serving under Calderón, the ex-cartel capo testified, García Luna still personally attended meetings with the head of the Beltrán Leyva family. 


“They would eat, they would chat and talk about problems that were coming up and these problems were solved,” El Grande said.

García Luna also allegedly leaked DEA intelligence to the cartel. El Grande described one occasion where his brother-in-law in the U.S. was planning to visit Acapulco for Christmas.

“I was warned the person was being followed by the DEA,” he said. “I canceled the get together I was going to have.”

Another time, a high-ranking cartel member named Edgar Valdez Villarreal—better known as La Barbie for his blonde hair and handsome face—had to skip out on his own wedding because García Luna sent a tip about plans for a police operation.

“The party took place but none of us went, not even Barbie,” El Grande said. “The government raided it but they didn’t find anything.”

Not only did the alleged bribes ensure safe passage through Mexico for the cartel’s drugs, El Grande said that even on the rare occasions when shipments were seized they made arrangements to avoid losses. He described a time where 20 tons of cocaine was seized by customs officials in the Pacific port of Manzanillo. The cartel arranged to “swap the good drugs for fake drugs,” he said, creating fake kilo bricks filled with a mixture of sugar and flour.


“We created a small factory so we could develop these bricks,” El Grande said, describing how they built the setup on a ranch normally used for training cartel hitmen. They built a small ironworks and brought in a hydraulic press to shape the bricks, which were rinsed with ether and acetone to mimic the smell of real cocaine, and also coated with varnish to replicate the glossy sheen. “We would package them as if they were any other cocaine bricks.”

Once the ruse was ready to go, the cartel simply loaded the real cocaine onto semi-trucks and hauled it out of the port, leaving behind the dummy kilos. 

García Luna also introduced El Grande’s boss to an unidentified Israeli businessman in Mexico City, who sold advanced spy equipment similar to the type used by the Mexican government and purchased with billions of U.S. tax dollars provided as security aid to fight the cartels.

“There were call inhibitors, recorders, and wiretap equipment,” El Grande said. “They were very cutting edge.”

El Grande also described how the cartel acquired guns from the U.S., including AK-47s (some gold-plated), AR-15s, and high-powered .50 caliber sniper rifles capable of taking down helicopters and penetrating armor. The cartel purchased grenade launchers, he said, and some weapons were marked “property of the U.S. government.”


Asked about cartel bazookas, El Grande replied: “Those were obsolete already. We had some sort of missiles but these were Russian-made or came from other countries.”

The cartel was so powerful, he said, that when a war broke out during the Calderón era in 2008 between the Beltrán Leyva Organization and another factions controlled by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and his partner Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, not even García Luna was safe.

El Grande’s boss arranged to have García Luna—the country’s highest-ranking law enforcement official at the time—kidnapped while he was driving with his security convoy on a highway in the Mexican state of Morelos. García Luna was released unharmed, El Grande said, but snatching him sent a message: “Anything is possible.”

After the incident, El Grande recalled visiting a safehouse in Mexico City and asking his boss about a heap of rifle and pistol magazines piled in one corder. The Beltrán Leyva leader smiled and told El Grande the clips had been taken from García Luna’s bodyguards, kept as trophies.

On cross-examination, García Luna’s defense pressed El Grande about why there was no concrete evidence that could prove his claims. Sinaloa Cartel leaders would routinely make secret recordings of their meetings with corrupt officials to keep as leverage, El Grande said, and, although tapes of García Luna were said to exist, “I never had them in my possession.” 


We created a small factory so we could develop these bricks

Other witnesses called by prosecutors so far seem to have little or no direct connection to García Luna. Tirso Martínez, a mid-level cartel trafficker who previously testified against El Chapo, was blocked by the judge from testifying about unnamed associations who purportedly offered to introduce him to García Luna sometime in the early 2000s. In a ruling handed down Tuesday, Judge Brian Cogan called the Martínez testimony “a sideshow and waste of time."

"The Court is not going to allow the jury to hear what amounts to a rumor of defendant's guilt," Cogan wrote.

Martínez was allowed to testify about cartel corruption, describing how he bribed multiple layers of Mexican officials to ensure safe passage his cocaine shipments, from a police captain in the Mexican state of Chiapas to a local commander in the city of Guadalajara all the way down to a tollbooth agent in the state of Guanajuato.

But the best connections, Martínez said, belong to El Mayo Zambada, who has never been captured during more than three decades of leadership atop the Sinaloa Cartel. Martínez described hearing another senior member of the Sinaloa Cartel explain their protection.

“My buddy Mayo has made arrangements with everybody,” Martinez said, recalling his colleague’s words. “The feds, the military police, the state police, the judicial police, the municipal police. Everyone.… few cabrónes (bastards) have the arrangements that he has.” 


Martínez was not asked whether El Mayo’s connections extended up to Mexico’s presidents, but other witnesses who testified against El Chapo during his trial in late 2018 and early 2019 did allege that corruption went all the way to the top. El Mayo’s brother, Rey Zambada, testified that he personally paid García Luna a bribe of more than $3 million, and court documents that emerged from the trial contained the allegation that the Zambadas had paid off an official who worked for the 2006 presidential campaign of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. While López Obrador lost that race to Calderón, he ran again and won in 2018 and is the sitting president. 

López Obrador has denied the allegations and has been using his daily press conferences to call for the Mexican media to pay close attention to the García Luna trial. "Until now, there has been no reliable evidence,” López Obrador said earlier this week. “There is also talk that he accumulated a huge fortune of around a billion dollars."

Former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto was also accused of corruption during El Chapo’s trial, with one witness claiming a $100 million bribe was delivered to ensure the Sinaloa Cartel’s business would remain protected. Peña Nieto has denied the allegation. Court filings indicate that the same witness who brought the allegations, a former Colombian drug lord named Alex Cifuentes, is expected to testify against García Luna.

So far, the only mentions of Calderón during García Luna’s trial have come from the defense, which has sought to bolster the narrative that the two men were working together to fight the cartels by any means necessary. Whether the judge would even allow extensive testimony about alleged Calderón corruption is an open question. Cogan also presided over El Chapo’s trial and he often restricted testimony and evidence, some of which still remains under seal.

Eduardo Balarezo, one of the defense attorneys for El Chapo, told VICE News it would be unlikely for Cogan to grant much leeway for detailed allegations against Calderón or another Mexican president unless it has a direct connection to the García Luna case.

“I’m sure Calderón will make an appearance in it, but I doubt the judge would let them go off on a separate trial just attacking Calderón,” Balarezo said. “That’s what we were trying to do during the Chapo trial and the judge reined us in.” 

Calderón has vehemently denied corruption allegations in the past, telling VICE News during an interview in 2018: “We've fought against all the cartels. We established a clear rule of no agreements with anyone — [that was] completely forbidden in my administration.”