The DEA Just Arrested Mexico's Ex-Defense Chief in Los Angeles

Drug trafficking and money laundering charges against the former military chief, who answered only to the president, accuse him of working with, rather than against, Mexico’s powerful cartels.
President of Mexico Enrique Pena Nieto (R) and Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda watch the annual military parade at Zocalo main square, in Mexico City, Mexico on September 16, 2016. Photo by Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

MEXICO CITY - Mexico’s former defense minister, who controlled the military as the government did battle with the country’s powerful drug cartels, was arrested yesterday in the United States on charges laid out in a damning indictment that accuses him of drug trafficking and money laundering.

The detention of retired General Salvador Cienfuegos in Los Angeles Thursday at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration makes him the highest-ranking Mexican military official to be arrested on such charges in the U.S.


His detention suggests that the general was working with, rather than against, Mexico’s drug cartels during his time in power. It also casts doubt over the integrity of Mexico’s most respected security institution, the military, on which current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is deeply reliant.

An indictment published Friday accused Cienfuegos of conspiring to produce, transport and distribute drugs into the United States between 2015 and 2017, working in allegiance with the H-2 Cartel, a trafficking organization based in the states of Nayarit and Sinaloa.

Cienfuegos allegedly “abused his public position'“ to “help the H-2 Cartel, an extremely violent Mexican drug trafficking organization, traffic thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States” in exchange for bribe payments, according to prosecutors.

The H-2 Cartel had numerous distribution cells in the United States, including in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Ohio, Minnesota, North Carolina and New York, according to court documents. The documents estimated that during the period in which Cienfuegos is implicated, the cartel distributed some 500 kilograms of heroin, 100 kilograms of cocaine, 200 kilograms of methamphetamine and 3,000 kilograms of marijuana a month in the United States.

A year ago, U.S. prosecutors convicted the former state attorney general of Nayarit, Edgar Veytia, for working with the H-2 cartel, and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.


The new charges and detention of Cienfuegos are a massive blow, not just to the retired general - who was Mexico’s top security official during the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012 to 2018 - but to Mexico governments past and present.

“This compromises the integrity of the entire military,” said José Antonio Caballero Juárez, a law professor and analyst at CIDE University in Mexico City. “This goes to a new level. There have been suspicions around the integrity of some high-ranking military officers and their relation with organized crime, but never right at the top.”

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by drug related violence in Mexico since the government launched a crackdown against organized crime in 2007, and violence this year promises to reach record levels.

It is also telling that Cienfuegos was never arrested in Mexico and that investigations into the former general are being carried out in the U.S.

“In 2020, Mexico still doesn’t have the federal justice institutions that are able to bring to justice major federal authorities such as Cienfuegos for their connections to drug cartels,” said security analyst Lilian Chapa-Koloffon, Senior Researcher at World Justice Project think tank. “Justice in Mexico isn’t able to carry out the necessary investigations and charges against suspects at this level.”

Mexico President López Obrador reacting to the arrest, said Friday: “We are not going to cover for anyone, those times are over.” Fighting corruption has been one of the main focuses of his administration.


“I also want to say that I am absolutely convinced that the armed forces are fundamental institutions for the development of the country.” Since he arrived in power at the end of 2018, López Obrador has relied heavily on the military in a public security role and recently announced an intention to put them in charge of the country’s ports.

It’s not yet clear whether the arrest of Cienfuegos is tied to other ongoing criminal investigations by the United States government into organized crime groups.

During the trial of Joaquín ‘El Chapo” Guzmán, a former cartel operative Alex Cifuentes testified that Guzmán ordered the payment of a bribe of US$10 million for the general to “leave him in peace.” Cienfuegos was not directly named in his testimony, and according to Cifuentes, the bribe was never paid and the general in question “hated Joaquín very much.”

Although Guzmán was convicted and sentenced to life in prison last year, investigations into others named on the indictment against him, such as the co-founder of the Sinaloa Cartel Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, are ongoing.

During the trial, El Mayo's brother described how Guzmán instructed him to bribe a Mexican military general. He was ordered to send $100,000 "as a gift and to send him a hug and notify him he'd be working" in the state of Guerrero, where the general was in charge.

Cienfuegos arrest could also be connected to former Mexico public security chief Genaro García Luna. He was indicted in New York last year on charges of taking bribes to protect the Sinaloa Cartel, and this month pleaded not guilty.

Ironically, Cienfuegos was recognized as recently as 2018 by the prestigious National Defense University in Washington D.C, run by the Department of Defense, for his contribution to international security. Yet under his watch, military personnel were accused of atrocious human rights violations, including mass, extrajudicial killings.

Cover: President of Mexico Enrique Pena Nieto (R) and Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda watch the annual military parade at Zocalo main square, in Mexico City, Mexico on September 16, 2016. Photo by Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.