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Mexico’s top cop is on trial along with the war on drugs

Did El Chapo have a double agent in the Mexican government?

Mexican President Felipe Calderon (R) and the Secretary of the Mexican Federal Police Genaro Garcia Luna (L) prepare to inaugurate the Mexican Federal Police new Intelligence Center, in Mexico City, on November 24, 2009.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon, right, and Secretary of the Mexican Federal Police Genaro Garcia Luna, left, prepare to inaugurate a new police intelligence center, in Mexico City, on November 24, 2009.
Alfredo Estrella/AFP via Getty Images
Haleema Shah joined Today, Explained in 2019. She produces, reports, and guest hosts episodes on the controversies and curiosities of the day.

Editor’s note, February 22, 10:10 am: Mexico’s former top cop, Genaro García Luna, was convicted Tuesday on five counts related to taking bribes and helping the Sinaloa cartel smuggle drugs into the US. The original story explaining García Luna’s history and trial, published January 27, is below.

This week, a federal drug trial got underway in Brooklyn that, in some ways, is an indictment against the war on drugs itself.

The Eastern District Court of New York trial is of Mexico’s former top cop, Genaro García Luna. Prosecutors say García Luna, who led Mexico’s version of the FBI and served as public security secretary — a powerful Cabinet-level position under President Felipe Calderon — was playing a double game throughout the US and Mexico’s war on drugs.

García Luna spent much of the 2000s being the face of a heroic crackdown on a brutal drug trade. But all that changed during cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s 2018 trial in New York City, which was a hotspot for the drugs his Sinaloa cartel smuggled into the United States. At the trial, a former cartel lieutenant told the jury that he personally met with García Luna twice in a restaurant, each time delivering a briefcase stuffed with at least $3 million in cash.

Now García Luna is charged with engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, among other charges. His defense has told jurors that the government’s case rested on “rumors, speculation and the words of some of the biggest criminals in the world,” who were apprehended by García Luna.

The revelations were a major scandal in Mexico, said Peniley Ramírez, a former investigative journalist at Univision and now co-host of Futuro Media’s podcast USA v. García Luna. But it was less surprising to Mexican journalists who’d been questioning how a civil servant became wealthy enough to own several luxury properties.

“There were a few people, a few journalists in Mexico that were asking too many accountability questions about him and the money that he had and the businesses that he was doing,” said Ramírez. “And those people were facing a lot of retaliation. Some of them left the country, some of them received death threats. And some of them are here [in New York] now covering the trial.”

Below is an excerpt of the conversation between Ramírez and Today, Explained host Sean Rameswaram, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so find Today, Explained on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen.


Sean Rameswaram

Help us understand how this guy who’s close to the DEA and working with the US government is now on trial in New York City for being a part of the drug trade.

Peniley Ramírez

One of the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel said [in a US federal court trial] that, “Yeah, I was working with El Chapo” — he was the leader of the Sinaloa cartel — “but guess what? We were bribing top Mexican officers to smuggle drugs here.” And in the middle of that, he drops García Luna’s name.

You can imagine that was a huge scandal in Mexico. So García Luna, who by then was living in Miami, took the first flight back to Mexico, and he gave a bunch of interviews saying “No! Oh, my God, I’m going to sue this person. How can he say that? He’s a criminal. I was the leader of the government trying to capture these people and extradite them.”

But less than one year after that, so December of 2019, he was arrested here in the US. And now he is going to be on trial before the same judge, Brian Cogan, and in the same place where El Chapo was on trial. So it’s the most important case derived so far from this big trial that was in the news a lot here in the US in 2018 and 2019.

Sean Rameswaram

And tell us his story. Where does it begin?

Peniley Ramírez

Well, he was born in Mexico City in 1968. It was a working-class neighborhood, his father had a moving business. [García Luna] wanted to be a soccer player, so he tried to become a professional soccer player but he couldn’t make it because he was not good enough. But then he moved to another career and he started studying engineering, and in the middle of that, he became a low-ranking spy. He entered the equivalent, in Mexico, to the CIA.

This is like the late ’80s, and really soon, just in about a decade, the guy becomes the head of the Mexican equivalent to the FBI. And then after that, just in six years, he becomes the head of the Mexican equivalent to the DHS, plus the NSA, plus the CIA. So he became [one of] the most powerful people in the civilian government of Mexico. And also he became one of the closest people in Mexico to the US government — especially to the DEA and to the FBI.

Sean Rameswaram

Was he good at his job?

Peniley Ramírez

Well, he was good at selling himself, that we can tell. He advanced really fast in his career, and he became this person that was, at some point, managing millions of dollars from US taxpayers that were sent to Mexico to fight the war on drugs. From 2001 to 2012, he was a top officer. So the guy was all the time in the news in Mexico. He was meeting with really important people from the US. He has pictures with Hillary Clinton, with Joe Biden. He was like a top, top officer. He was in a lot of bilateral meetings. He was receiving awards from the CIA, saying, “Thank you for helping us.” But the crazy thing is that now he’s being accused, here in New York, in the US Eastern District Court in Brooklyn, of helping El Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloa cartel smuggle the drugs to the US while working with the DEA and the Mexican government.

And at the same time, he was seeing himself as a top spy. So this guy was obsessed, for example, with James Bond. When he turned 50 years old, he organized a party with a James Bond theme. And for example, his work email was AFI01, so he was “agent number one” of the agency that he was leading. And he was also obsessed with a lot of things American. For example, he had a secret basement in his house with a lot of records from Donna Summer and he was also obsessed with CSI. So he received part of the money from the US and he created a show, a TV show that was called The Team.

Sean Rameswaram

Wait, he had his own TV show in Mexico?!

Peniley Ramírez

Yeah, yeah. They paid up to $11 million to create a TV show, and one of the helicopters that was donated by the United States to Mexico to fight the war on drugs was in the trailer of the TV show saying “Oh, these are the good cops from Mexico that are fighting the war on drugs.” And then in 2012, the guy left office, left the Mexican government, and he moved to Miami to a $3 million house. It was like a super luxury lifestyle. It’s hard to believe that you can pay all of that with just, you know, your salary as a public servant. The salary of a public servant in Mexico is less than the middle-class salary in any part of the US. So I think it’s hard to believe that you can afford that. So he was living in Miami all that time after he left office until he was arrested in 2019. So he got a pretty cool life. But now he’s in jail in Brooklyn.

Sean Rameswaram

What charges is García Luna facing?

Peniley Ramírez

Well, he’s facing several charges. Most of them are for conspiring with a cartel to bring the drugs. They’re also charging him with lying to the DHS, because as he moved to Miami when he left office in Mexico, he became a resident and then he was seeking American citizenship. And as you know, when you are trying to become a citizen, you need to respond to a questionnaire. One of the questions is, “Have you ever committed a crime?” And he said no. Now they’re accusing him of lying, saying, “Oh, yeah, you did.” So let’s see if they prove it.

Sean Rameswaram

You’ve been in the courtroom. What’s it like in there?

Peniley Ramírez

First, it’s a high-security case. So reporters during the jury selection weren’t allowed to be in the same room where the jury was being selected. The jury will remain anonymous. So we know their numbers, but we don’t know their names and they’re partially sequestered.

Sean Rameswaram

How is García Luna’s team defending him?

Peniley Ramírez

The narrative is … he was a Mexican “good cop,” [the] top good cop, the guy who was saving Mexico. So the defense right now is playing this card of saying, first, that most of the potential witnesses against him are people that are taking revenge because he apprehended them and he extradited them, and now they’re just coming back for him. And the second thing [they’re saying is] “He couldn’t be corrupt because he was working with the US. He was working with the American government.”

Sean Rameswaram

What’s the prosecution saying so far?

Peniley Ramírez

They’re saying so far that they will have more than 70 witnesses. So that’s huge. That’s way more than a typical trial. They have been delivering more than a million pages of documents related to the case to the defense. So the defense has been trying to go over all these documents to try to find out, what’s the prosecution’s smoking gun, if they have it. We know that a lot of the witnesses are going to be cooperating witnesses — people that were with the Sinaloa cartel or with other cartels, and they allegedly knew something about García Luna. And now they are able to testify what they know and try to get some good treatment from the prosecution in exchange for saying what they know. So we are expecting big, big names in the narco industry and people that were really crucial to understand why this so-called war on drugs has been mostly a failure so far.

And I think this is the important part for the US audience, because I think it is important to say that this is not just a trial of a wild Mexican politician that liked Donna Summer and James Bond and CSI. It’s something really American, because most of the money that is involved, it’s money from the US taxpayers that went to Mexico to help fight the war on drugs. Most of the victims of the violence are in Mexico. But the victims of these drugs, the hundreds of thousands of people dying from overdoses, are here in the United States. They are not in Mexico. So that’s why I think it’s important to tell the story here, because it’s not just a story about Mexican politics.

Sean Rameswaram

It sounds like the outcome of this trial will mostly just affect García Luna. But has the American government addressed how embarrassing these revelations so far have been?

Peniley Ramírez

Oh, of course not. They have not addressed it at all.

[In fact], they have been trying to prevent the defense from presenting any evidence that García Luna was close to the United States. For example, the prosecution asked Judge Cogan to prohibit the defense from presenting any evidence [like] “Here is a picture of him with Hillary Clinton… here is the award that he received from the CIA,” because as you said, it is embarrassing. García Luna is accused of helping the Sinaloa cartel since 2001. So in 2012, 11 years after that, he received this fancy award from the head of the CIA, David Petraeus, saying, “Thank you in recognition for your effort and your help to the United States.” And you know, I think that you used the correct word, which is: it’s embarrassing.

Sean Rameswaram

When the trial is over, this war on drugs will not be over. But is there a way it could be conducted better in a way to avoid embarrassing incidents like this with García Luna?

Peniley Ramírez

I would truly expect that after this trial, especially if he’s declared guilty, that the United States does a deep revision of their international allies. So how many other García Lunas are out there? If he is declared guilty, how many other people that the US government is trusting right now with money, with information … are receiving awards from the US government and nothing is actually happening? Because the numbers are really clear, you keep seeing drugs coming into the border every day. You keep seeing people dying from overdoses of fentanyl, of cocaine, every day. So the war is not over, because people are still dying from overdoses in the United States. People are still dying from the violence in Mexico. So I would love to see some accountability regarding not just this guy. What other people are out there that, right now, should be fighting the drugs [coming] in and they are not doing it?

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