MEXICO CITY — A former Mexican defense minister was arrested on Thursday night after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport with his family, according to the Mexican government, becoming the first high-ranking military official to be taken into custody in the United States in connection with drug-related corruption in his country.
The former official, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who was Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018, was arrested by American officials at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration and will face drug and money-laundering charges in the United States, according to a federal law enforcement official in New York.
The news not only casts a pall over the nation’s fight against organized crime, it also underscores the forces of corruption that touch the highest levels of Mexico’s government. General Cienfuegos was defense minister throughout the administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto.
“There has never been a minister of defense in Mexico arrested,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister. “The minister of defense in Mexico is a guy that not only runs the army and is a military man, but he reports directly to the president. There is no one above him except the president.”
The exact charges that General Cienfuegos will face were not immediately clear, and Drug Enforcement Administration officials did not respond to requests for comment.
General Cienfuegos served as defense minister at a time when homicides spiked to historic levels and drug cartels waged war.
“This is a huge deal” said Alejandro Madrazo, a professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City. “The military has become way more corrupt and way more abusive since the war on drugs was declared, and for the first time they may not be untouchable — but not by the Mexican government, by the American government.”
Mexico’s military has played a central role in public security since the crackdown on the drug cartels began in 2006, deploying soldiers to regions overrun by organized crime. The secretary of defense oversees that effort.
Suspicions of corruption in the Mexican military have long surfaced in private conversations. The crackdown on corruption has led to the arrest of politicians, police officers and even the official who was credited with creating the counternarcotics strategy that spawned the war on drugs.
But the military has had an extraordinary amount of autonomy, seldom bowing to political pressures and typically enjoying protection by the president, who relies on them for the nation’s domestic defense.
With the military front and center in the fight against narcotics trafficking, the Mexican government has never built an effective police force. The use of soldiers who are trained in combat but not policing has brought problems of its own.
The military has repeatedly been singled out for human rights abuses and the use of excessive force, including accusations of extrajudicial killings that dogged the armed forces throughout General Cienfuegos tenure as defense minister.
But no high-ranking Mexican military official has been charged with money laundering and drug trafficking. Such charges would represent a new front in the effort to combat the corruption and extraordinary power wielded by organized crime in Mexico.
The previous significant case in the fight against drug-related corruption in Mexico was in December 2019, when the authorities in the United States arrested Genaro García Luna, the former public security secretary and architect of the nation’s war on cartels. He was accused of working for one of the cartels he was supposed to be pursuing.
General Cienfuegos’s arrest does not appear to have been a joint operation with the Mexican government. Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said in a Twitter post that he was told only Thursday night by the United States ambassador that the former defense minister had been taken into custody.
Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting.