Gen Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was detained on Thursday, Mexico's foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted.
Gen Cienfuegos was arrested on a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warrant, the Mexican government confirmed for the BBC.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said on Friday the general had been accused of drug trafficking.
"Hopefully this serves to illustrate that the main problem in Mexico is corruption," the president said, before praising Gen Cienfuegos' successor at the head of the army and his counterpart in the navy.
President López Obrador, who was elected on an anti-corruption platform in 2018, has accused his predecessors of running a "narco-government" that allowed corruption.
He is seeking to lift the immunity of former leaders from prosecution.
President López Obrador
image captionPresident López Obrador has confirmed that Gen Cienfuegos is accused of drug trafficking
Gen Cienfuegos, 72, served as minister from 2012 to 2018, under President Enrique Peña Nieto.
His role as the most senior member of the armed forces meant he played a key role in Mexico's war on drugs.
But there were accusations of complicity between the state and the country's powerful drug cartels throughout Mr Peña Nieto's presidency, reports BBC Mexico correspondent Will Grant.
Earlier this year, one of the former president's closest advisers was extradited to Mexico from Spain on corruption charges.
Emilio Lozoya, the former boss of Mexican state oil company Pemex, is accused of taking $10m (£8m) in bribes from a Brazilian construction firm that has admitted paying off Latin American politicians. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Re: Highest Ranking EX Mexican Military Leader arrested by DEA today
Says he worked with H2, probably connected not to Garcia Luna, but to Edgar Vetyia, the AG of Nayarit who is serving 20 years, and was prosecuted also in EDNY.
Vetyia gave him up, assumedly, or provided information. He was sentenced the month after the indictment was filed.
.S. law enforcement has been investigating the H-2 Cartel, a violent Mexican drug trafficking organization based in Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico, that was previously led by Juan Francisco Patron Sanchez. 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. The DEA estimates that between January 2013 and February 2017, the H-2 Cartel distributed on a monthly basis approximately 500 kilograms of heroin, 100 kilograms of cocaine, 200 kilograms of methamphetamine and 3,000 kilograms of marijuana into the United States and earned millions of dollars in illegal proceeds. In furtherance of its drug trafficking operation, the H-2 Cartel used firearms and physical violence, including torture and dozens of homicides.
Veytia used his position as the top law enforcement officer in the State of Nayarit to assist and sanction the cartel’s operations in Mexico, in exchange for bribes on a monthly basis. Vetyia also directed other corrupt Mexican law enforcement officers under his supervision to assist the H-2 Cartel, released members and associates of the cartel from prison after they had been arrested for drug trafficking-related crimes, instructed corrupt Mexican law enforcement officers to target rival drug traffickers for wiretaps and arrests and assisted the H-2 Cartel in carrying out murders and other acts of violence. In addition, Veytia assisted the H-2 Cartel in covering up the murder of a rival drug trafficker in October 2015.
The case was investigated by the DEA, FBI and HSI as part of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces (OCDETF). The OCDETF program is a federal multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional task force that supplies supplemental federal funding to federal and state agencies involved in the identification, investigation and prosecution of major drug trafficking organizations. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking, weapons trafficking and money laundering organizations, and those primarily responsible for the nation’s illegal drug supply.
American law enforcement agents were listening in as Mexican cartel members chattered on a wiretap, talking about a powerful, shadowy figure known as El Padrino, or The Godfather.
Agents had been closing in on him for months, suspecting that this central figure in the drug trade was a high-ranking official in the Mexican military.
All of a sudden, one of the people under surveillance told his fellow cartel members that El Padrino happened to be on television at that very moment. The agents quickly checked to see who it was — and found it was the Mexican secretary of defense, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, according to four American officials involved in the investigation.
ANALYSIS: Written by Parker Asmann -OCTOBER 16, 2020
The US arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister on drug charges confirms what has been alleged by traffickers themselves: that the country’s military, which plays an outsized role in the fight against organized crime, has been thoroughly corrupted.
On October 15, the US Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, informed Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard that former general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s defense secretary under former President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), had been arrested at Los Angeles’ international airport.
The arrest order from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) came after Cienfuegos — dubbed “El Padrino,” or the “Godfather” — was charged with three counts of drug conspiracy and one count of money laundering, according to an indictment filed in August 2019 in the Eastern District of New York.
The charges stem from allegations that he colluded with the H-2 Cartel between 2015 and 2017, according to court documents. The H-2 Cartel — which has its roots in the Beltrán Leyva Organization — was formerly led by Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, alias “H2,” who was shot and killed by Mexican Marines in early 2017.
US federal prosecutors accuse the former general of using his “public position to help the H-2 Cartel … operate with impunity” in exchange for bribes, according to an October 16 letter from prosecutors to Eastern District judge Carol B. Amon.
Evidence cited includes “thousands of [intercepted] Blackberry Messenger communications” that allegedly show Cienfuegos shielded the group from military operations, secured maritime transport of drug shipments, warned the group about US law enforcement investigations and introduced its members to other corrupt Mexican officials, prosecutors said.
Cienfuegos’ assistance ensured the H-2 Cartel operated without “significant interference from the Mexican military,” allowing the crime group to import “thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States,” prosecutors alleged in the letter.
Cienfuegos is not the first Mexican official accused of conspiring with the H-2 Cartel. Former Nayarit state attorney general Edgar Veytia was arrested in 2017 and later sentenced to 20 years in jail for his role in an international drug trafficking conspiracy with the group.
While Cienfuegos is the highest-ranking member of Mexico’s military to face drug charges, he is just the latest top-level security official to be arrested.
Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s secretary of public security from 2006 to 2012, was indicted in 2019 on a number of cocaine trafficking charges. He and two high-ranking police officers that worked under him, Luis Cárdenas Palomino and Ramón Pequeño García, were also accused of accepting bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.
InSight Crime Analysis
Cienfuegos’ arrest is unprecedented. That it even happened at all is remarkable.
Military officials have long been accused of corruption but are rarely, if ever, prosecuted. It has been more than two decades since former general and anti-drug czar Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was arrested and later convicted for colluding with high-profile cocaine traffickers like Amado Carrillo Fuentes, better known as the “Lord of the Skies.”
Cienfuegos’ arrest also hits hard Mexico’s armed forces, which became even more central to attacking organized crime groups when in 2006 then-President Felipe Calderón launched an official crackdown. The militarized approach has only ballooned in the ensuing so-called drug war.
Since then, more than 200,000 people have been killed in Mexico, and tens of thousands more have disappeared. The indictment suggests that while Cienfuegos was leading the institution at the heart of the fight against organized crime under the Peña Nieto administration, he was also allegedly colluding with the very criminals he pledged to root out.
Indeed, Cienfuegos’ arrest further upends any notion of a “war,” in which the state is on one side and criminal groups on the other. In reality, these actors are much more intertwined, maintaining order and driving violence as a means to regulate conditions that are mutually beneficial.
The United States has much to answer for as well. With the arrest of García Luna and now Cienfuegos, it has become increasingly clear that US security and government officials frequently work with counterparts deeply involved in the drug trade. The question now is what was known and when. Speculation about high-level corruption has swirled for decades, especially during the Calderón administration’s tenure from 2006 to 2012.
“There were a number of red flags when Cienfuegos was a general, and when he was named defense minister in 2012, I had heard rumors about his corruption,” Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former Chief of International Operations, told InSight Crime.
This is far from the first time Cienfuegos has been at the center of controversy. In 2015, the former army chief infamously said that his soldiers “won’t be treated like criminals” in relation to the forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School. Last month, authorities issued arrest warrants for the alleged material and intellectual authors of the crime, including members of the military.
In 2014, Cienfuegos also rejected accusations that his troops were culpable in the so-called Tlatlaya massacre, when soldiers killed 22 people in what was described as a “shootout.” In reality, the soldiers received a direct order to kill, according to human rights activists.
Cienfuegos’ arrest also adds to the list of Mexican officials to be charged in the United States and not at home. As a result, he won’t be held to account for some of the grave human rights abuses he is accused of overseeing as a general in Mexico.
What’s more, the military continues to be one of Mexico’s most trusted institutions and a mainstay of domestic security. A May decree signed earlier this year solidified its place in combatting crime groups for the foreseeable future. The United States also recently urged Mexico to crack down harder, demanding the Mexican government demonstrate its “commitment to dismantling the cartels and their criminal enterprises.”
This all but guarantees that the armed forces will remain on the frontlines, despite the latest headlines.