Cartel trial of former Mexican security chief Genaro García Luna implicates ex-president Calderón

The secretary of public security during the presidency of the rightist leader was arrested in Dallas in 2019, charged with taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel

Genaro García Luna, circa 2017
Genaro García Luna, circa 2017Tercero Díaz (Cuartoscuro)

The highest-profile trial in history against a former Mexican official is about to begin in the United States. Three years after being arrested, Genaro García Luna was finally seated in the dock in the Eastern District Court of New York – the same courtroom where Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2019.

The secretary of public security during the administration of right-wing former Mexican president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) will have to answer for three charges of cocaine trafficking, organized crime and making false statements. If found guilty, the former Mexican security chief will face a minimum of 10 years in jail – or, if prosecutors get their way, life behind bars.

The District Attorney’s Office is accusing García Luna – one of the most controversial and feared Mexican politicians – of collaborating with the Sinaloa Cartel for almost two decades. His fate is now in the hands of an anonymous jury and Judge Brian Cogan – the same man who sentenced El Chapo. The case will be decided in a Brooklyn courtroom, but it threatens to unleash a political storm more than 2,000 miles away, on the other side of the border.

The Court for the Eastern District of New York had dozens of hearings on Tuesday, including trials against gang members, multi-million dollar fraudsters… and even a bribery scandal at FIFA.

“Which judgement? The one with the terrorist?” a veteran employee of the court asked aloud, while reviewing the busy schedule of the judges. “Oh, sure! The policeman from Mexico,” he chuckled, suddenly remembering. “It’s the most important case we have these days,” he told EL PAÍS.

García Luna doesn’t ring much of a bell in Brooklyn – but the trial against the former official has not gone unnoticed. Some US media refer to him as Mexico’s “top cop.” Interest in the case skyrockets when his alleged link with El Chapo is mentioned, especially after the recent capture of Ovidio Guzmán – El Chapo’s son – in the state of Sinaloa. Outside the courthouse, more and more Mexican and Latin American reporters are gathering each day.

Genaro García Luna, center, depicted during a hearing inside the court, on February 27, 2020.
Genaro García Luna, center, depicted during a hearing inside the court, on February 27, 2020.JANE ROSENBERG (Reuters)

García Luna – a man who experienced a meteoric rise when Calderón declared a war against the drug cartels in 2006 – will not be seen wearing a prison uniform during his trial. This was a request made by his lawyers. Judge Cogan will allow him to wear navy blue suits.

The defense attorneys are convinced that they will be able to prove their client’s innocence – they have claimed that the DA has no solid evidence against him. In the US legal system – which favors obtaining plea bargains in exchange for reduced sentences – the mere decision to go to trial is a show of confidence.

According to previous hearings, the prosecution plans to call about 20 witnesses to the stand. García Luna’s lawyers have tried to have these testimonies discarded, alleging that there is a conflict of interest. They claim that many of the incarcerated former officials and drug traffickers who wish to testify are willing to say anything, as many were arrested during the former minister’s tenure.

The final list is not yet public – it will be revealed as the trial progresses. But regardless of who is allowed to testify, the number of accusations and revelations continue to fuel what has long been a suspicion in Mexico: that there is an outrageous level of collaboration between the authorities and the leaders of the cartels.

Current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has called into question the hundreds of thousands of dollars that García Luna managed to amass as a government contractor after he left public service. In 2006, López Obrador – a leftist – alleged that he was defrauded by Calderón’s right-wing National Action Party when he was narrowly defeated in the presidential elections.

US attorneys have assured the Mexican president that they will certainly take into account the fortune made by García Luna in the private sector. They claim that, during his time in office, he also helped a group of security companies receive millions of dollars in US government funds to install surveillance systems and technological equipment. It is alleged that these companies repayed the favor by purchasing a mansion in Florida for García Luna in 2012, when Calderón’s term ended.

“Businessmen got him a multi-million dollar home and a yacht in Miami… as well as a lucrative contract,” read a court document filed last week.

The defense team has denied these allegations, while also stating that their client’s career in the private sector is irrelevant to the case. The trial, however, will put his entire life under scrutiny, regardless of what his attorneys say.

Since the arrest of García Luna in December of 2019 – just five months after the conviction of El Chapo – López Obrador has made it clear that he does not intend to miss the opportunity for the accusations against Calderón – his long-time nemesis – to spill out into the media.

Calderón has claimed that he never knew his secretary of security had ties to narcos. The former Mexican president currently resides in Spain, after being granted status with the help of José María Aznar, a former right-wing Spanish prime minister.

But Calderón is not the only one potentially affected by the whole legal process. The prosecution assures the court that García Luna had collaborated with the Sinaloa Cartel since 2001, when he was head of the Federal Investigation Agency during the administration of Vicente Fox (2000-2006), who also hails from Calderón’s party. And the accusations aren’t restricted to one part of the political spectrum, either: allegations about the former minister’s corruption as a government contractor point to the center-left administration of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), of the historic PRI. Like Calderón – his predecessor – Peña Nieto also resides in Spain.

The incumbent president of Mexico is also by no means free of being accused of criminal activity.

During the trial of El Chapo, several traffickers claimed that they had approached López Obrador’s top people during the 2018 campaign to hand over bribes. Still, he doesn’t appear to be concerned: for now, he is looking forward to seeing his predecessors sweat. “The García Luna trial is going to be interesting,” the president laughed last week. “The trial will be very good, very good.”

By the end of Tuesday, the 12 members of the jury had been selected. The initial arguments will begin soon. Never before has such a high-ranking Mexican official faced prosecution in the United States. While García Luna will be looking to save himself, prosecutors aren’t only seeking jail time: they’re also prosecuting the bloody early years of the war on drugs, which left tens of thousands dead.

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