MEXICO CITY, MEXICO.- Just a few days into the trial of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a witness dropped a bombshell allegation: A Sinaloa cartel associate testified that he had personally given Mexico’s top drug cop briefcases full of cash — millions in bribes to let the cartel operate with impunity.
Now, the man who had been considered an architect of Mexico’s anti-drug battle and a key partner of U.S. law enforcement is going on trial Tuesday in the same New York federal court. Genaro García Luna — head of Mexico’s version of the FBI from 2001 to 2006 and public security minister from 2006 to 2012 — is accused of conspiring with the criminals he was ostensibly aiming to take down.
García Luna, 54, who was arrested in December 2019, is the highest-ranking Mexican official to face trial in the U.S. on drug-trafficking charges — four counts of conspiracy to traffic cocaine. It’s as if the head of the FBI or Drug Enforcement Agency was accused of taking millions in drug money.
García Luna frequently met with top U.S. security officials while in office and was often portrayed as the public face of Mexico’s drug war. But prosecutors say they plan to show that the former Mexican top cop provided the cartel with safe passage for its drug shipments and with sensitive information about investigations into the cartel or rival gangs.
This is the most important national security and drug-trafficking trial of this century, even more so than El Chapo’s, said Rodolfo Soriano Núñez, a sociologist and former professor who has long studied the use of military force in Mexico.
“We knew Chapo was dirty,” Soriano said, “but Chapo is nothing but a peasant from rural Sinaloa.” García Luna, by contrast, was a powerful public official who held the trust of Mexico’s president from 2006 to 2012, Felipe Calderón, who mobilized the military and federal police in what became a bloody and more than decadelong battle against drug cartels.
“It has the potential to unveil one of the key aspects of the so-called war on drugs here in Mexico,” Soriano said, “which is that of the ties, the links, the connection between political power and the so-called drug gangs.”
A jury is expected to be selected early this week, with opening statements in the Brooklyn court soon to follow.
The stakes of the trial
The testimony and evidence that could come out at the trial could have far-reaching consequences on both sides of the border.
With a career spanning three decades, García Luna has intimate knowledge of the drug war in Mexico and ties to the country’s administrations going back to the early 2000s. And he had a particularly close relationship with the DEA and FBI from the latter part of President George W. Bush’s second administration through President Obama’s first, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University.
Revelations from the trial could be a major stain on past administrations in Mexico. To critics of the drug war, a conviction would confirm the failure of the joint U.S.-Mexico effort, which received billions of dollars in U.S. aid and was blamed for tens of thousands of deaths — but did little to reduce cartel violence or smuggling.
“The collaboration has not resulted in the dismantling of drug-trafficking networks,” said Correa-Cabrera. “Today, the United States consumes more drugs than ever before, and through the border, more drugs than ever before enter the United States.”
The trial could put additional strain on declining security cooperation between the two countries. During the Calderón years, U.S. security agencies had essentially a free pass to go wherever they wanted in Mexico, Correa-Cabrera said.
“Las agencias entraban hasta la cocina,” said Correa-Cabrera, using a Mexican expression that translates as “The agencies made it all the way into the kitchen.” She noted that Mexico’s current administration has shifted toward more limited cooperation with U.S. security agencies on Mexican territory.
And with the 2024 U.S. presidential election in sight, experts say the United States doesn’t hold a lot of leverage to pressure Mexican authorities to change that, considering how much Washington relies on Mexico City to control U.S.-bound migration through Mexico.