MEXICO CITY—The arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister by U.S. authorities shows that corruption is Mexico’s biggest problem, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Friday.
Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who served as defense minister from 2012 to 2018 in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, was arrested Thursday upon arrival at Los Angeles International Airport at the request of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“I always said that it wasn’t just a crisis, but a decadence that we were suffering from,” Mr. López Obrador said during his daily news conference. “It’s regrettable that a former defense minister is detained, accused of ties to drug trafficking.”
Mr. López Obrador said he has confidence in the current defense and navy ministers, whom he personally picked, and that Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval wasn’t recommended by Gen. Cienfuegos. He denied that the arrest would weaken the armed forces, which he said were key to the country’s development.
The president said the charges against Gen. Cienfuegos would be made known later Friday.
Gen. Cienfuegos’s arrest came less than a year after the detention of Genaro García Luna, former head of Mexico’s federal police who led the country’s war on drug cartels during the administration of President Felipe Calderón. Mr. García Luna, who has pleaded not guilty to drug-trafficking charges, is in prison awaiting trial in New York.
Mr. López Obrador, who was a longtime opponent of using the military to combat organized crime groups, said he has confidence in the armed forces and current minister, whom he personally chose for the post.
The nationalist president was persuaded by military chiefs before taking office that the armed forces were needed to confront the country’s dire security situation. Since taking office in December 2018, Mr. López Obrador has given the military an even bigger role, with responsibility for deploying a new National Guard, building a new airport for Mexico City, and putting the navy in control of the country’s seaports.
Gen. Cienfuegos is the highest ranking Mexican official to be arrested in connection with drug-related corruption. In the late 1990s, another senior army leader, antidrug czar Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was arrested and sentenced to 40 years in jail for taking bribes from drug cartels. He died in 2013 in prison.
The arrest is likely to give a political boost to Mr. López Obrador, who has based his political career on denouncing corruption within Mexico’s political and economic elites. It also raises serious concerns about the use of Mexico’s military to take on drug gangs.
“This is a huge scandal,” said Jorge Chabat, a professor of international relations at the University of Guadalajara. “It’s a devastating blow to the Mexican army, which is the most important pillar of López Obrador’s security strategy.”
Mr. García Luna, the former police chief, was arrested in 2019 on charges he was bribed by the Sinaloa Cartel to allow cocaine shipments to the U.S. and is in prison awaiting trial in New York.
In recent months, two top lieutenants of Mr. García Luna were also indicted in New York in connection to his case. Luis Cárdenas Palomino and Ramón Pequeño, the ex-head of the antinarcotics division of Mexico’s Federal Police, face similar charges of taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.
“In exchange for multimillion-dollar bribes, the defendants allegedly permitted the Sinaloa Cartel to operate with impunity in Mexico,” the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York said in a statement. The two are “presently fugitives,” it added.
The three men were charged after information surfaced in the 2019 New York trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, former head of the Sinaloa Cartel, implicating Mr. García Luna. During the trial, a witness testified that he had handed Mr. García Luna $3 million in cartel money in a suitcase, something Mr. García Luna denied at the time.
Since 2005, violence in Mexico has skyrocketed, as heavily armed drug cartels wage war on each other to take over lucrative smuggling routes and markets. An assault on cartels ordered by Mr. Calderón during his 2006-2012 term led to only more bloodshed, as gangs splintered and fought ever more vicious turf wars. More than 200,000 people have died.
Since the 1960s, when Mexican army patrols began efforts to eradicate marijuana and poppy plantations, Mexico’s army has been at the forefront of the country’s assault on organized crime. The use of the army instead of professional police forces has raised concerns of the potential for corruption among the highest ranks of Mexico’s military.
The arrest of Mr. Cienfuegos on drug charges would be devastating for Mexico’s army, said Raúl Benítez, a security analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The military has become one of the main pillars of support of Mr. López Obrador’s government. Among other things, the army is playing a key role in the deployment of a new National Guard amid rising criminal violence and has also been delegated to build a new airport for Mexico City.
“This will demoralize them,” said Mr. Benítez. “The army had been feeling very empowered.”
A high-ranking former U.S. defense official said he was surprised by the arrest. “We never had any indication of anything wrong,” the former official said. “He went out of his way to strengthen relations with the U.S.”
Successive administrations, starting with Mr. Calderón, tried building up the federal police force, but the arrest of Mr. García Luna shows that effort was also tainted.
Mr. Ebrard said that Mexico’s consul to Los Angeles will offer consular assistance to Gen. Cienfuegos and report on the charges that led to his arrest.
—José de Córdoba contributed to this article.
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