KEY POINTS

  • Federal prosecutors in the United States allege the former defense minister used the power of his office to allow the cartel to operate free from military interference, helped orchestrate maritime drug trafficking and introduced cartel figures to other Mexican officials willing to take bribes for their support.
  • Investigators uncovered their evidence after combing through cellphone messages between the former minister and high-ranking cartel bosses.
  • The arrest comes less than a year after Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s former public security secretary, was arrested in Texas on charges related to drug trafficking.

Former Mexican defense minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuego Zepeda was arrested Thursday at Los Angeles International Airpot on drug trafficking and money laundering charges while holding public office, according to U.S. prosecutors.

Zepeda, who was traveling with his family, was charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana to the United States. Neither the U.S. nor Mexican embassies issued statements on the arrest. 

The arrest had been confirmed Thursday in a Twitter post from Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard.

Federal prosecutors allege Cienfuegos used the power of his office to allow the H-2 Cartel — an extremely violent drug trafficking organization —  to operate free from military interference. He also allegedly helped orchestrate maritime drug trafficking and introduced cartel figures to other Mexican officials willing to take bribes for their support.

"In exchange for bribe payments, he permitted the H-2 Cartel - a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder - to operate with impunity in Mexico," according to court documents released Friday by the U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of New York.

Investigators uncovered their evidence after combing through cellphone messages between Cienfuegos and high-ranking cartel bosses.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who was elected in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform, called the arrest "very regrettable," and that it was a sign of the “decomposition” of the government under Pena Nieto.

Zepeda, 72, served as defense minister from 2012 to 2018, all under Pena Nieto.

The arrest comes less than a year after Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s former public security secretary under Pena Nieto, was arrested in Texas on charges related to drug trafficking and financial crimes through his links to drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Falko Ernst, a security analyst in Mexico working for the Crisis Group, told CNN that the latest arrest is indicative of the tacit overlap that exists between armed forces and cartels in the so-called war on drugs.

"It is also a reminder that there is no such thing as a clear line between state and crime, which undermines the very notion that this is a winnable war with clear enemy categories,” he said.