The US Government Is Complicit in the Drug Cartels’ Crimes

Last month, a federal US court found a former Mexican security chief guilty of colluding with the Sinaloa Cartel. The trial showed how both the US government and its Mexican clients have been guilty of the criminal activity they’re supposedly trying to stop.

Among Genaro García Luna’s “strategic partners” were ex-members of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the FBI, and the CIA. (Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, February 21, a federal jury in Brooklyn, New York, found Mexico’s former secretary of public security, Genaro García Luna, guilty of conspiring with the Sinaloa Cartel. Known as the “supercop” due to the outsize power he wielded during the administration of conservative president Felipe Calderón, García Luna was convicted on all counts: conspiracy to distribute cocaine internationally, conspiracy to distribute and possess cocaine, and conspiracy to import cocaine, together with participating in a continuing criminal enterprise and making false statements on his application to become a naturalized US citizen.

In a statement, US attorney Breon Peace declared that García Luna had betrayed his duty by “accepting millions of dollars in bribe money that was stained by the blood of Cartel wars and drug-related battles” in exchange for “protecting those murderers and traffickers he was solemnly sworn to investigate.” The jury’s verdict, he concluded, was “a shining light for the rule of law, right over wrong, and justice over injustice.”

Calderón’s Criminal Symbiosis

But behind the picture-perfect façade of a dogged American prosecutorial team bringing a corrupted former Mexican official to justice lies a web of complicity and collusion that shines a harsh light on the entire narrative of the “war on drugs.”

To start, the verdict represents a brutal humiliation for two former presidents: Vicente Fox (2000–6), who named García Luna to be the director of the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI), Mexico’s now-defunct version of the FBI, and Calderón (2006–2012), who elevated him to cabinet status as his secretary for public security, investing him with plenipotentiary powers over the nation’s policing.

In stark contrast to the former presidents’ attempts to depict their time in office as a heroic crusade against organized crime, witness accounts painted a portrait of a security apparatus in lockstep with it. According to Jesús “El Rey” Zambada, brother of the Sinaloa Cartel’s former leader Ismael, members of the Sinaloa Cartel would wear AFI uniforms “to make arrests and engage in fighting” while García Luna, as the head of the agency, was on the take for $1.5 million a month.

Over at the Mexico City airport — also controlled for nearly a decade by Zambada — federal police would be conscripted to unload cocaine shipments. Indeed, García Luna would even allow the cartel to “choose personnel” for federal police assignments. At an exclusive restaurant in Mexico City, Zambada would pay García Luna his own bribes directly. According to testimony from the former attorney general of the state of Nayarit, the order to protect the Sinaloa Cartel came from Calderón himself.

“In [Calderon’s] administration you didn’t know who to fear more, organized crime or the disorganized security corps,” writes analyst Jorge Rodríguez. “Rather than an infiltration, it should be referred to as a symbiosis, which to a large extent is the cause of the violence we continue to experience.”

This symbiosis extended to relations with the press. While Calderón was threatening journalists, filmmakers,  and even a sitting member of the supreme court (in a recent interview, Justice Arturo Zaldívar revealed that he and his family were threatened at gunpoint by federal police and that the then president not only was aware of it, but that “he knew in real time”), García Luna was using his burgeoning wealth to sweeten the pot. At his turn on the stand, the former finance minister of the state of Coahuila testified that García Luna paid the newspaper El Universal some Mex$25 million (USD$131,725 at today’s exchange rates) per month in exchange for favorable media coverage; at least one of the payments was funneled through state coffers using a phony invoice.

The sum total of these revelations was enough to send Mexico’s talking heads into a spiral of defensiveness and lashing out. Raymundo Riva-Palacio, the former editorial director at El Universal, insisted that García Luna couldn’t possibly have received a million-dollar bribe because a million dollars in bills would weigh a ton . . . literally.

María Amparo Casar, executive president of the US Agency for International Development–funded NGO Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity insisted that, because the only charge García Luna was proven guilty of was falsifying his naturalization document, he could wind up “walking free” from the court. When that didn’t happen, Carlos Marín of the newspaper Milenio fumed that the jury verdict could only be understood in the context of working-class people with deficient education being allowed on US juries. Equally bereft, former Televisa anchor Joaquín López-Dóriga devoted an entire Twitter thread to quotes from García Luna’s lawyer, César de Castro, decrying the verdict.

An Economy of Means

None of this is to say that all criticisms of the trial are unfounded. Indeed, both in the formulation of charges and the evidence presented, the prosecution case led by US attorney Peace appeared perfectly calibrated to achieve a conviction while divulging the least possible information to the public. Initial reports painted a picture of a prosecution bulging with over a million documents, thousands of recordings, and a witness list of some seventy or so; with all of this, the trial, which began with opening arguments on January 23, was expected to stretch into March. Instead, it was over by mid-February, with a fraction of the documents, less than a third of the witnesses, and none of the recordings having come out.

Part of this can be chalked up to the standard procedure of mobilizing only the witnesses and evidence deemed helpful to an unfolding case. But another crucial part has to do with the limited set of accusations made by the government, allowing Judge Brian Cogan to rule out any evidence of the highly incriminating business dealings García Luna set up in Miami after leaving his governmental role in 2012 — dealings that are the subject of a $700-million civil lawsuit filed by AMLO’s Justice Department against him.

Other omissions were still more glaring. No mention was made, for example, of the Obama era’s botched gun-tracing program “Fast and Furious,” which delivered US arms into the hands of Mexican cartels. (In January, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office issued an arrest warrant of its own for García Luna for his alleged participation in the operation.)

When the defense tried asking about Garcia Luna’s meetings with top-level officials in Washington, the prosecution moved to head them off. And while prosecutors took great pains to link García Luna to Iván Reyes Arzate, the former head of the Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU) of the Federal Police, they conveniently left out that the unit was directly linked to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), where all of its members — including Reyes Arzate — had received special training.

One of the things that did slip out at the trial was the testimony of DEA agent Miguel Madrigal, who stated that the agency had been informed about García Luna’s connections with the Sinaloa Cartel by Sergio Villarreal Barragán, “El Grande,” in 2010, two years before he left office.

This is consistent with statements by the DEA’s former chief of intelligence operations, Anthony Placido, who a year before Barragán’s tip was already voicing public suspicions, and by former assistant secretary of state and later ambassador Roberta Jacobson, who in a 2020 interview revealed that the State Department knew about García Luna’s ties as far back as the Fox administration. According to Jacobson, the information came from members of the Mexican government, which knew “as much as we did, or more, and never took action.” As for the reasons why the United States did not act either, Jacobson, with an almost audible shrug, rationalized that “we had to work with him.”

From Houseguests to Business Partners

It’s not just a question of what US officials heard; it’s also a matter of what they saw. In an investigative report by ProPublica, a former US embassy official reports being invited to a party at García Luna’s house, only for the host to show off his collection of restored vintage automobiles to his American guests. “It was right in front of us,” said the official, who estimated the value of the collection to range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Astonishment quickly gave way, however, to the Jacobson excuse: “But we didn’t really have a choice about working with him.”

The fact that the intelligence community had a pretty good idea of who García Luna was did not stop its rank and file from “working with him” or even, as it turned out, going into business with him. According to Reporte Indigo, which reviewed the websites of GL & Associates Consulting and its sister organization ICIT Security before they were taken down, among García Luna’s “strategic partners” were ex-members of the DEA, the FBI, and the CIA. From the DEA, Larry Holifield had been regional director for Mexico and Central America at the time García Luna headed the AFI. The FBI’s Carlos Villar had been the bureau’s legal attaché in the US Embassy in Mexico around the same time. But the name that truly raises eyebrows is Jose Rodriguez, who ran the CIA’s torture program under George W. Bush and destroyed some ninety-two videos with evidence of torture before becoming the public face — and best-selling author — defending the program.

All of this — including a string of recent scandals at the DEA, such as the ousting of Mexico chief Nicholas Palmieri in 2022 for “socializing and vacationing with Miami drug lawyers” — should be enough to warrant an investigation into the intelligence community’s contacts with García Luna in particular and organized crime in general. But because of the Democratic Party’s near-total absorption into the national security borg, the task of asking these questions has fallen, by default, to Republicans. On February 22, the day after the verdict, Senator Charles Grassley wrote to the DEA and FBI requesting all recordings of García Luna, together with reports, notes, and documents related to him, vetting procedures used, and an explanation of “what each of your agencies knew about García Luna’s corruption and criminal activity, when your agencies learned the information, and how your agencies learned the information.”

Denial and Deflection

From his self-imposed exile in Spain, Felipe Calderón released a statement following the verdict denying everything and playing the victim. This was to be expected. Even more cynical has been the behavior of the US press in recent weeks: instead of coming to grips with the lessons of the trial and demanding answers from the officials who played ball with García Luna for years, including red-carpet treatment, photo ops, and breathless profiles in the New York Times, major media has joined hands with a claque of swaggering politicians in a convenient attempt to argue that the narco-state is now, not then.

In a bizarre Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for military intervention in Mexico, former attorney general William Barr argued that “Mexican cartels have flourished because Mexican administrations haven’t been willing to take them on. The exception was Felipe Calderón.” It was as if the García Luna trial hadn’t just happened. Or rather, perhaps it was precisely because the García Luna trial had just happened.

This attempt to turn history on its head has two main functions: it avoids uncomfortable questioning about US complicity in the war on drugs, while deflecting attention on the Mexican side from Calderón (who was a US client) onto AMLO (who is not). But that strategy could run into a brick wall if García Luna decides to become a cooperating witness against his former bosses in exchange for a reduced sentence, which his lawyer has said he is considering.

Meanwhile, all the jingoistic saber-rattling may be running up against the law of unintended consequences. On Saturday, March 18, an estimated five hundred thousand people turned out at a rally in Mexico City to commemorate the anniversary of the expropriation of the oil industry and also to oppose US interventionism. “This is no longer the time of Calderón or García Luna,” declared the president from the podium. “This is no longer the time of shady ties between the Mexican government and US agencies.”