June 10, 2023

NEW YORK — A former Mexican presidential cabinet member was convicted in the U.S. on Tuesday of taking massive bribes to protect the violent drug cartels he was tasked with combating.

Under tight security, an anonymous New York federal court jury deliberated three days before reaching a verdict in the drug trafficking case against former Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna.

He is the highest-ranking current or former Mexican official ever to be tried in the United States.

García Luna, who denied the allegations, headed Mexico’s federal police and then was its top public safety official from 2006 to 2012. His lawyers said the charges were based on lies from criminals who wanted to punish his drug-fighting efforts and to get sentencing breaks for themselves by helping prosecutors.

The case had political ramifications on both sides of the border. Testimony aired a secondhand claim that former Mexican President Felipe Calderón sought to shield notorious Sinaloa cocaine cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán against a major rival; Calderón called the allegation “absurd” and “an absolute lie.”

Jurors also learned that García Luna met with high-level U.S. politicians and other officials, who considered him a key cartel-fighting partner as Washington embarked on a $1.6 billion push to beef up Mexican law enforcement and stem the flow of drugs.

The Americans weren’t accused of wrongdoing, and although suspicions long swirled around García Luna, the trial didn’t delve into the extent of U.S. officials’ knowledge about them before his 2019 arrest. Current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has, however, pointedly suggested that Washington investigate its own law enforcement and intelligence officials who worked with García Luna during Calderón’s administration.

A roster of ex-smugglers and former Mexican officials testified that García Luna took millions of dollars in cartel cash, met with major traffickers and kept law enforcement at bay.

He was “the best investment they had,” said Sergio “El Grande” Villarreal Barragan, a former federal police officer who worked for cartels on the side and later as his main job. “We had absolutely no problems with our activities.”

He and other witnesses said that on García Luna’s watch, police tipped traffickers about upcoming raids, ensured that cocaine could pass freely through the country, colluded with cartels to raid rivals, and did other favors. One ex-smuggler said García Luna shared a document that reflected U.S. law enforcement’s information about a huge cocaine shipment that was seized in Mexico around 2007.

García Luna, 54, didn’t testify at the trial, though his wife took the stand in an apparent effort to portray their assets in Mexico as legitimately acquired and upper-middle-class, but not lavish. The couple moved to Miami in 2012, when the Mexican administration changed and he became a consultant on security issues.

García Luna’s lawyers emphasized that prosecutors’ case relied on testimony from admitted lawbreakers, without recordings, messages or a documented money trail to corroborate them.

“Nothing backs up what these killers, torturers, fraudsters, and epic narcotics traffickers claimed about Genaro García Luna,” defense lawyer César de Castro said in a closing argument.

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