When the Mexican general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda he arrived this Thursday with his family to The Angels (United States) to spend vacations, he was surprised that the American Drug Agency (DEA) had requested his arrest.
Who until this moment was considered a respected military man and had held the highest positions in the military forces of his country is now accused of four crimes: three of drug trafficking and one of money laundering.
His arrest by the US authorities shook Mexican politics and public opinion. Cienfuegos Zepeda, from 2012 to 2018, had been the top commander of the Mexican army (head of the National Defense Secretariat) during the government of Enrique Peña Nieto.
This is the most important blow to the Mexican army since 1997, when General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was captured and sentenced to 40 years in prison, and it is the first time in Mexican history that a former defense secretary (minister) has been arrested.
According to a judicial document of the US prosecutors to which EL TIEMPO had access, the crimes of which the general is accused were committed between December 2015 and February 2017 and include: manufacture, distribution and importation of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana ; and links to illicit money laundering transactions. Even, in that same document, it is noted that the retired general has two aliases: the ‘Godfather’ and ‘Zepeda’.
EL TIEMPO also had access to the notification from the Department of Justice of the EE. UU. in which they inform the general about the charges against them. It states that Cienfuegos “abused his public position to help the H-2 cartel,” an organization he describes as “extremely violent” and that trafficked “thousands of kilograms of narcotics in the United States.”
The evidence gathered during the DEA investigation (which it dubbed ‘Godfather’ after the general’s alias) includes thousands of intercepted Blackberry Messenger messages. Among the messages, the document specifies, there are direct exchanges between General Cienfuegos and ‘H-2’.
The abbreviation ‘H-2’, on the other hand, is the alias of Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, a criminal leader close to the Beltrán Leyva brothers, whose organization was derived from the Sinaloa cartel, to which Joaquín el ‘Chapo’ Guzmán also belonged. .
On Friday, after Cienfuegos’s capture, the Federal Court of the Central District of California, in Los Angeles, held the Cienfuegos hearing. It began at 2:59 p.m. (local time) and lasted only five minutes, long enough to confirm that the general had read the accusation against him. In addition, a new hearing was determined for this Tuesday, in which his detention conditions and his bail option will be established.
The document states that if convicted, each crime of drug trafficking would mean a minimum of ten years in prison; however, given the size and severity, he will most likely be sentenced to life in prison.
(Of interest: ‘When Vizcarra leaves power, he goes to jail’)
Meanwhile, the 72-year-old general will remain in jail at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Once the measures are established, he will be held accountable in the Court for the Eastern District of New York, the same one in which ‘Chapo’ Guzmán was convicted in 2018.
THE TIME got in touch with Marcela Celorio, the consul of Mexico in Los Angeles, who stated that “all consular assistance is being provided to the general,” and expressed that he cannot speak further about the case. However, on Twitter he stated: “I interviewed General Cienfuegos twice: to make sure of his state of health and his conditions of confinement; the second personally. He was provided with the proper consular assistance and I informed him about his rights in the USA ”.
Stir in Mexico
The capture of General Cienfuegos surprised the Mexicans. In this country he was not conducting any investigation against the former general. “It is worrying for the Mexican Government and for Mexicans that such a renowned, respected institution is being exposed, since a former member of this agency was captured in the American Union”, Mexican lawyer Julio Jiménez Martínez, constitutionalist, researcher and legal and political analyst, told EL TIEMPO.
In fact, Dr. Jiménez recalled that Cienfuegos was decorated by the US Government in 2018. “In November two years ago, both Cienfuegos and the former head of the Secretary of the Navy (Semar) Vidal Soberón were recognized with the Legion of Merit in the rank of commander, as a result of cooperative ties with the United States, ”he explains.
César Gutiérrez, a Mexican criminal lawyer in military law and a specialist in national security, told EL TIEMPO that the United States would be investigating ten more generals, mainly those close to former General Cienfuegos.
One of them would be Brigadier General Roberto Miranda Moreno, who was in Spain at the time of hearing the news of the capture of Cienfuegos, and would have left the Mexican embassy in that country. His whereabouts are still unknown today. Miranda was also very close to former President Peña Nieto, who is being investigated for corruption.
According to Gutiérrez, “the detention of Cienfuegos is a demonstration that drug trafficking reached The pines (former Mexican presidential residence) since the government of former President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León ”.
The capture coincides with a moment in which the military forces have a fundamental role in the country.
On the one hand, the arrest of Cienfuegos occurred on the same day that the civil command of the National Guard was transferred to a military command. This means that more than 70,000 troops will be under the command of the current secretary. And is that the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, He has insisted that the Armed Forces are the Government’s last bastion of public integrity.
Eduardo Bohórquez, director of Transparency International in Mexico, explained to EL TIEMPO that “although the president has sought to minimize the possible responsibility of officials close to former secretary Cienfuegos, calling them ‘incorruptible’, public opinion has begun to doubt the Armed forces Mexican women, who now enjoy greater power and influence than in the entire post-revolutionary period ”, and adds that“ the arrest at the request of the DEA it severely weakens the idea that it is an incorruptible institution ”.
In this regard, lawyer Jiménez adds that in Mexico “Drug trafficking has begun to penetrate a large part of the Government, the institutions, a large sector of public servants and government officials.”
In response to the news, President López reacted by saying that “it is a very regrettable fact that a former Secretary of Defense is detained accused of links to drug trafficking.” And he did not waste the opportunity to criticize the government that preceded him: “It is an unprecedented situation because he is detained on the same accusation as the Secretary of Public Security of Felipe Calderon, and now they arrest Enrique Peña Nieto’s Secretary of Defense, ”he said.
Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was born in Mexico City on June 14, 1948. Following in the footsteps of his father, who was also a military man and became a lieutenant colonel and died when Cienfuegos was two years old, he decided to dedicate himself to this career from a young age.
At the age of 16, in 1964, he began his military career at the Heroico Colegio Militar. He studied there and in two other institutions to train as an officer.
Since then he has had different promotions and important positions inside and outside of Mexico. In the country, until 2000, he was director precisely of the Military College where he began his career. He was also a Major General in four military regions. On the other hand, he was a military attaché in the Mexican embassies in Japan and South Korea.
His highest position was held as General Secretary of the Sedena, in the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, from 2012 to 2018, when he decided to retire. It is during this period that he is accused of drug trafficking and laundering charges.
In the Military Forces he was characterized by being strict with his troops and by having a “regulatory” and “not very empathic” attitude. This is stated by the lawyer Gutiérrez, who knew him personally and describes him as “an educated guy. Tall, with a very firm look and dry in his speech ”.
Many shared this impression of its apparent rigidity and high discipline, which is why the public opinion and political spheres in Mexico are still a surprise in the New York investigation and, of course, the rapid action of the DEA in the investigation. capture of Cienfuegos, a general who seemed ‘untouchable’.
SIMÓN GRANJA MATIAS AND MATEO ARIAS ORTÍZ
On Twitter: @simongrma – @mateoariasortiz