The impunity of Alberto Reyes Vaca, the Mexican army general who was fond of drug ballads

The former commander of the Special Forces Corps installed a bar at his barracks, used soldiers as waiters at private parties and charged the bill to the military budget

Alberto Reyes Vaca on the day of his appointment to the position of Public Safety Secretary for the State of Michoacán in May 2013.
Alberto Reyes Vaca on the day of his appointment to the position of Public Safety Secretary for the State of Michoacán in May 2013.RR. SS.

The traditional ballads that glorify the status and supposed deeds of drug traffickersnarcocorridos – filled the night air on October 30, 2014, in a Mexican army barracks, within the very institution that is on the front line of the country’s war on drugs. The music emanating from the walls of Military Camp 37-B came from a party organized by Alberto Reyes Vaca, who was at the time the commanding officer of the Special Forces Corps based in Temamantla, in the State of Mexico. Among the guests were the singer Gerardo Ortiz and the band Calibre 50, both from Sinaloa. Calibre 50 played several narcocorridos, with lyrics praising the exploits of various leading figures among the cartels.

The party, the performers and the messages that the songs relayed caused a scandal among General Reyes Vaca’s subordinates. Days later, one of his junior officers made a complaint to the Comptroller General of the Army and Air Force – the body that oversees the military’s use of public funds – stating that the musicians hired to play had performed narcocorridos. “I could not comprehend that while we spend months away from our families, our commanders spend their time organizing parties in barracks and inviting civilians, who knows of what kind, getting drunk and having a wild time,” the officer wrote in his complaint, which led to an investigation.

Despite the Comptroller’s office determining that the brigadier-general had organized the party in question and others on previous occasions at military facilities where the food and drink was paid for under false pretenses and charged to the Ministry of Defense (Sedena) budget, the matter was concluded with a mere reprimand. It was not the first time that the army had received complaints about Reyes Vaca’s conduct. On his record were other allegations of corruption and links to organized crime that were also swept under the rug.

One of the most serious accusations against Reyes Vaca is that he disclosed military activities carried out by the Special Forces Corps under his command

The Comptroller’s internal investigation uncovered a series of anomalies during Reyes Vaca’s command of the Special Forces Corps (SF), between October 2014 and mid-2016, according to documents obtained by EL PAÍS. Among the files are details of an order issued to remodel and refurbish a palapa – a thatched-roof structure – located in the SF training area, where he would organize his parties and hold private meetings. Reyes Vaca installed a bar and used soldiers to serve as waiters.

The documents show that the general invested “a considerable amount of resources” on the palapa, which “contained a bar, crystal glasses, disco-type furniture and a mural depicting rural scenes, such a howling wolf and cowboys in the desert,” the report states. Reyes Vaca also bought musical instruments to form a band made up of members of the unit, who would play at private meetings held once a month and which were attended by civilians, some of whom would travel from Michoacán.

In the report compiled by a military committee tasked with investigating the general’s conduct, photographs are included that confirm the attendance of Gerardo Ortiz and Calibre 50 during at least one of the general’s parties. After interviewing brigade commanders, officers and soldiers serving under Reyes Vaca, the committee attempted without success to find contracts for the hiring of Ortiz and Calibre 50. The report states that while Calibre 50 played at the party, Ortiz was merely in attendance and did not perform. The committee could not determine whether the musicians were paid for their appearance of if they agreed to play because of a personal friendship with the general. “An internet search for the price of hiring the band Calibre 50 did not reveal the exact amount but this group is considered to be among the artists who generally charge between 600,000 and 800,000 pesos [€24,700-€33,000] to perform,” the report states.

One of the most serious accusations against Reyes Vaca is that he disclosed military activities carried out by the Special Forces Corps under his command during demonstrations he ordered, including allowing his son and other civilians to drive military vehicles. “This put the secrecy of military training exercises at risk,” the report states. It is also documented that the general organized target practice for civilians with no connection to the military who he had invited to the base. On one occasion between 20 and 30 people arrived at the barracks in “brand new, luxury pick-ups” accompanied by military personnel. During the investigation it was also revealed that slot machines had been installed at the base. Under the general’s command, unauthorized building and remodeling work was carried out and soldiers from the SF were used for tasks including brick-laying, laundry and painting.

The general’s excesses had repercussions among the troops. One example is that in the cafeterias on the base used by the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th SF battalions, products were sold at higher prices than stated on price lists and were more expensive than the same items sold in civilian outlets. “In this order of ideas, it can be seen that conduct contrary to the exercise of public service in detriment to the morale and economy of the personnel at the training base and the members of the special forces units was in evidence,” the report said. The Comptroller’s investigation employed a mole at the SF base in Temamantla, a strategy designed to reveal the scale of the abuses meted out to soldiers first-hand.

n 2020, Reyes Vaca retired from the military with the right to a pension without being held accountable before the military courts over allegations of past misconduct

The investigation concluded that Reyes Vaca made improper use of military facilities and forced military personnel to carry out activities beyond those established for serving soldiers. “This constituted an illegal, dishonest, disloyal, partial and deficient practice in the exercise of public service and in the carrying out of his duties as commander of the Special Forces Corps based at Temamantla, State of Mexico”, the report concluded. The committee also cited the general for improperly involving staff serving under him, including subordinate commanders, officers and enlisted personnel. “This goes against all established normative logic, given his seniority and the position he held.”

Along with Reyes Vaca, four base personnel were disciplined after the committee’s findings: Infantry Second Captain Felipe Mera Nájera; Sapper Second Captain Jorge Antonio López Vázquez; Infantry Lieutenant Juan Pablo López Guzmán and Military Police Corporal Servando Félix Barrera.

The brigadier-general’s defense argues that none of the performers were paid for playing at the party. In a letter sent to the Ministry of Defense, Reyes Vaca’s attorneys explained that when he was serving as state security secretary in Michoacán, he met many businessmen and one of these was the representative and manager for Calibre 50. In October 2014, this individual called Reyes Vaca and said he would like to meet him. “Under the circumstances and out of mere courtesy I decided to receive him, with the intention only of greeting him, taking into account the high regard with which he holds the armed forces.” The general said that the businessman arrived at the barracks in a bus accompanied by Calibre 50, upon which he invited them to lunch. “When they had finished eating they decided to play a few songs, palomazos as they call them, for their own entertainment or pleasure, in the absence of the audience they would have at an official or formal event,” Reyes Vaca said.

In the case of Gerardo Ortiz, the general stated that the singer visited the base separately simply to say hello and that he had not had the pleasure of making his acquaintance before then. EL PAÍS has attempted to contact Reyes Vaca via various means to obtain his version of events without success.

A turbulent past

Sedena has dismissed a series of allegations against Reyes Vaca, starting from his tenure as commanding officer of the 80th infantry battalion based in Tlaxcala. Between 2011 and 2012, he was accused by a group of officers of being among the commanders who ordered subordinates to extract gasoline from pipelines owned by state energy company Pemex to then sell on to gas stations, according to a report published on the news website Estado Mayor, which focuses on military matters. He also set a section of the battalion to work on his personal interests, including a bar, a pulquería (an establishment where pulque, a popular agave-based Mexican drink, is sold) and a pig farm. When he left, he put on a party with live music led by the singer Gerardo Reyes,” one of the officers told Estado Mayor. In another news report the infantry officer Eduardo Navarrete Montes, who had been lodging complaints about irregularities in Reyes Vaca’s conduct for several years, said that before taking up his command in Tlaxcala Reyes Vaca had been accused by junior officers of theft and abuse of authority. “A while beforehand, when he held the rank of lieutenant-colonel, his subordinates accused him of stealing various items seized during operations against drug traffickers,” Montes said in an interview.

Despite these accusations, in 2013 Reyes Vaca was appointed State Security Secretary in Michoacán, a post he held for eight months. He was handed the job in an attempt by the federal government of President Enrique Peña Nieto to placate vigilante groups and reduce the levels of violence in the state. On May 15, 2013, then-Secretary of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong said that Michoacán would name a member of the armed services to the post, who would have under his control all federal, state and, eventually, municipal forces. The following day, Reyes Vaca was appointed, under the protective wing of Peña Nieto’s Secretary of National Defense, Salvador Cienfuegos.

Six months later, in November 2013, the newspaper Milenio released documents from the payroll of the criminal organization Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights Templar), which had been obtained by the intelligence services. Among the mayors, police officers, commanders and customs officials named on the list there was an army general, whose name was withheld, but who allegedly received two million pesos [€82,000] a month from the organization. In an interview on a Michoacán radio station, Reyes Vaca said he was happy to be investigated. “I am a general on active service and people should rest assured that if I do something I shouldn’t do, my secretary general [Cienfuegos] will call me to set the record straight because there is not impunity in the army.”

After eight months in the post, during which he failed to reduce the crime rate, Reyes Vaca was removed in January 2014. A former local government employee who worked in Michoacán at the time says that there were many people who questioned the general’s actions while in the job, particularly among the police. One of the complaints was that Reyes Vaca assigned police officers to act as bodyguards to whomever he decided needed them. Furthermore, the local government worker says, the general made personal use of the budgetary funds for state security to finance his own whims. “It was said there were days when he would disappear and nobody knew where he was, he would head off with a couple of his close confidants. There were always rumors that he was involved with the Caballeros Templarios, he was even mentioned on one of their lists of expenses,” adds the civil servant, who did not want to give their name for fear of reprisals.

In October 2014, Reyes Vaca’s superiors sent him to the State of Mexico, where complaints about his conduct started anew prompting the Comptroller’s investigation, which failed to deliver the justice the general’s accusers sought: the investigation concluded that the allegations did not constitute serious misconduct. Neither was a criminal investigation beyond the military’s remit opened up. “It is important to highlight that this internal control body is not responsible for investigating crimes; that is to say, it does not have the mission of establishing criminal conduct and imposing the corresponding sanctions,” the committee wrote in its summary. After Reyes Vaca received a reprimand, he was transferred to the 12th Military District in Irapuato, Guanajuato, where he was appointed as chief of regional services. After the change of federal government, he took up the post of commander of the regional training base in the 6th Military District in La Boticaria, Veracruz.

In 2020, Reyes Vaca retired from the military with the right to a pension of 70,000 pesos [€2,890] a month without being held accountable before the military courts over allegations of past misconduct.

English version by Rob Train.

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