Arrest of former Mexican defence minister shakes military

Mexico City, October 17

The arrest of Mexico’s former defence minister in the United States on charges that he protected a drug cartel in exchange for bribes is a blow to Mexico’s military, one of the few institutions that had maintained the confidence of the people.

Until Thursday’s arrest of retired General Salvador Cienfuegos at Los Angeles International Airport, the military was still respected by virtue of appearing to be largely above the corruption commonly seen in other pieces of Mexico’s security apparatus, despite documented human rights abuses.

For Mexico’s last three presidents at least, the military was the security force that could be deployed against the country’s powerful drug cartels.

Also read: Authorities: Top Mexico official helped smuggle drugs to US

The US prosecutors’ allegations that Cienfuegos was nicknamed “the Godfather” and carried on direct conversations with the leader of a violent cartel moving cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin into the United States led many Mexicans to wonder: what now? “Now we’re in a really complicated situation because now nobody can help us,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor with George Mason University.

“You can’t argue anymore that you’re going to send in the army because it’s the least corrupted institution. It’s the same or more corrupt than the others,” Correa-Cabrera added.

Cienfuegos was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport Thursday at the request of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. He was scheduled to make an initial appearance in court via video call Friday afternoon and to eventually be transferred to New York where the case originated.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Friday that his ambassador to the United States Martha Bárcena told him two weeks ago that there was an investigation underway there involving Cienfuegos, who had been Mexico’s top military official during the presidency of             Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012 to 2018.

López Obrador said Cienfuegos’ arrest was “regrettable”.

“This is an unmistakable example of the decomposition of the government, of how civil service was degrading, the government service during the neoliberal period,” López Obrador said.

He said there was no drug-related investigation of Cienfuegos in Mexico.

He offered a vote of confidence to current military leaders asserting that the leaders of the army and navy that he selected are “incorruptible”. But the allegations against Cienfuegos are sure to spur doubt that anyone is.

According to documents filed by US prosecutors, Cienfuegos helped a drug trafficking organisation dubbed the “H-2 cartel”, by ensuring military operations weren’t conducted against them, acting against their rivals, introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt officials and warning the cartel about US investigations.

In one case, his warning about US use of confidential informants led to the murder of a cartel member leaders believed “incorrectly” was helping US authorities.

Mexico’s defence secretary is not just another Cabinet post. It’s equivalent to being king of an independent fiefdom. AP

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