On October 15, 2020, General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeta, 72, former Defense Minister of Mexico from 2012 to 2018 under President Enrique Pena Nieto, was arrested by U.S. federal authorities in Los Angeles on charges of Drug Trafficking. The four-count indictment against Cienfuegos charges him with conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and marijuana, as well as conspiracy to launder proceeds from the sale of narcotics. After his transfer to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, he was denied bail.
According to documents filed with the court by the United States Attorney’s Office, while serving as the Secretary of National Defense for Mexico, Cienfuegos used his position to assist the H-2 Cartel, a notorious drug trafficking organization alleged to be headed by Juan Francisco Patron Sanchez and based in Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) alleges that the H-2 Cartel has engaged in “countless acts of horrific violence, including torture and murder.” The Cartel distributes drugs through the United States. The DOJ states that the cartel has operated in Mexico “with impunity, engaging in wholesale drug trafficking, firearms trafficking and violence, including dozens of murders, without interference from Mexican law enforcement officials.”
As the head of the Mexican Army and Air Force, Cienfuegos, according to DOJ, would ensure that no military operations were undertaken against the Cartel. He would also direct military operations against H-2 Cartel’s competitors, locate maritime shipping assets for the Cartel, assist the Cartel in expanding its territory in Sinaloa and introduce cartel members to other corrupt Mexican officials. Cienfuegos also provided the Cartel with information concerning ongoing US. law enforcement investigations of the Cartel. One Cartel member was murdered as a result of information received from Cienfuegos concerning U.S. law enforcement efforts. Cienfuegos allegedly received millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for the information he provided to the H-2 Cartel.
Cienfuegos was the head of Mexico’s anti-drug operations and held himself out as a key partner in the U.S. war against drugs. He is the second high-ranking official of the Peña Nieto administration to be arrested. In 2019, former Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested on similar charges. These arrests have prompted a review of Mexican law enforcement by the current President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrado, who has vowed to suspend any officer associated with the corruption of the former regime. If convicted, Cienfuegos faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.