By Robert Mazur, former U.S. Federal Agent and author of “The Infiltrator”
Having been one of the soldiers in the war on drugs for 27 years, I must confess that I, my brothers and sisters on the front lines, the American public and the world’s communities have been deceived. A a small band of the politically powerful have, time and time again, undermined the integrity of what we all call “the war on drugs”. It’s not a war; it’s a lie.
Last month, one of the most influential members of the H-2 Cartel, a spinoff cartel from El Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, was arrested in Los Angeles. For years before his arrest, his identity was uncertain, other than the fact that the underworld referred to him as “El Padrino” (The Godfather). His devious role in the underworld was well documented by U.S. law enforcement authorities. The Godfather’s crimes were documented in thousands of BlackBerry messenger communications and wiretaps. He helped arrange the transportation of drug shipments, introduced the cartel’s top leaders to corrupt Mexican government officials willing to take bribes, warned the Cartel about ongoing U.S. investigations, identified informants to Cartel leaders, and even played a hand in the death of a suspected informant who was wrongfully accused of working with U.S. authorities, according to American officials.
Despite the airtight case DEA and other agents built against The Godfather, only weeks after his arrest, at the direction of Attorney General Bill Barr, he was released from a U.S. prison and allowed to return, a free man, to Mexico. That’s because The Godfather was General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the Defense Minister of Mexico from 2012 through 2018, during the entire tenure of President Enrique Pena Nieto.
The Godfather was a very special man in Mexico. He was not only the highest-ranking military official in the country, controlling all military resources, but he also reported directly to former President Enrique Pena.
U.S. authorities first learned of Godfather Cienfuegos’ connection to organized crime in 2013 through their investigation and prosecution of another corrupt high-ranking Mexican official, Edgar Veytia, referred to within the underworld as “El Diablo” (The Devil). While functioning as an important resource to the Cartel, Veytia was the Attorney General of one of Mexico’s states. Veytia’s value to the Cartel included wrongfully releasing Cartel members from prison, facilitating murder, committing violent acts, and covering up murders of members of rival Cartels, according to investigators. During wiretaps related to Veytia, law enforcement started picking up on references to The Godfather and his powerful role within the Cartel. Law enforcement got a major break when, during an intercept, members of the Cartel said the Godfather was on television. Agents tuned in and saw General Cienfuegos on TV.
Earlier this month, at the direction of Attorney General Barr, and in opposition to the position taken by those who had worked so hard to put Godfather Cienfuegos behind bars, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York filed a motion to dismiss charges against Cienfuegos. According to the motion, the evidence of Cienfuegos’ critical role in international heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana conspiracies was overwhelming. Despite the solid proof, the motion asserted that the case was dismissed as a matter of foreign policy and in recognition of the strong enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States. The motion also claimed the case was dismissed in order to permit the Mexican investigation and potential prosecution of Cienfuegos to proceed.
Media reports contradict claims made in the motion to dismiss. Sources claim that the Cienfuegos’ case was dismissed because Mexican officials threatened to otherwise expel all American federal drug agents from Mexico. Mexican officials claimed Cienfuegos’ indictment was a violation of Mexican sovereignty.
Despite claims otherwise in the motion to dismiss, Mexico has made no promise to put Cienfuegos on trial in Mexico, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the current President of Mexico, has expressed skepticism about the charges. According to Lopez Obrador, “There is no impunity for anyone, but at the same time crimes will not be allowed to be fabricated….We cannot allow without evidence the undermining of our fundamental institutions.”
Reuters recently reported that a source within the Department of Justice claims the dismissal of U.S. charges against Cienfuegos was the idea of Attorney General Barr, and that the charges were dropped in exchange for a commitment that Mexican authorities would arrest a high-level cartel leader involved in trafficking large quantities of opioid fentanyl.
In my view, President Lopez Obrador and Mr. Barr have done more to undermine the credibility and effectiveness of the war on drugs than any two people on this planet. The evidence is overwhelming that the most dangerous commodity peddled by the underworld is corruption.
Those in high offices who intentionally become a part of criminal organizations to reap personal fortunes through corruption deserve the most severe penalties possible under the law of the land that suffered the consequences of their treason. I’m outraged that our country’s sovereignty was violated by Godfather Cienfuegos through his devious acts to conspire to import tens of tons of illegal drugs into the United States. I’m outraged that those drugs were spilled onto the streets of our cities, causing the destruction of millions of lives. How dare you, Mr. Cienfuegos.
Assuming Reuter’s source within the Department of Justice is accurate and Attorney General Barr orchestrated the release of Cienfuegos in exchange for getting his hands on a Cartel leader, Mr. Barr is either naïve or lacks good judgment. Cartel leaders are a dime a dozen. Before the fumes of the jet that transports a Cartel leader from Mexico to the U.S. dissipate into our atmosphere, that Cartel leader is replaced by another thug standing in the endless line of gangsters seeking power.
An effective war on drugs should prioritize the vigorous prosecution of anyone and everyone who sells their official position to facilitate crime. Mr. Barr should have paid more attention to the testimony of witnesses in major drug-related trials like the prosecution of El Chapo Guzman, because within that testimony, one might find another possible motive for the highest-ranking Mexican officials demanding the release of Godfather Cienfuegos.
Alex Cifuentes, a Colombian trafficker and personal aide to El Chapo Guzman testified in U.S. District Court that a $100 million bribe was paid at the direction of El Capo Guzman to former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. He testified that the bribe was solicited from El Chapo Guzman by Pena Nieto in return for protection. Yes, the Enrique Pena Nieto referenced by Cifuentes as the recipient of this massive bribe is the same Enrique Pena Nieto who Godfather Cienfuegos worked closely with, directing the activities of Mexico’s entire army.
Cifuentes also testified that the Beltran Leyvas Cartel paid bribes to former President Felipe Calderon, and that El Chapo Guzman authorized more than $10 million in payments to Mexican military units to kill cartel rivals and provide safe escort for drug shipments.
Even a motion filed by the U.S. government in the El Chapo trial speaks to the extent of corruption at the highest levels of Mexican leadership. In that motion, the U.S. government mentioned bribes allegedly paid to a senior adviser to the current President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Yes, that’s the same Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador who is outraged that the U.S. government brought charges against Godfather Cienfuegos.
Less than a year ago, U.S. authorities arrested Gernardo Garcia Luna, the former Mexican Secretary of Public Safety. Garcia Luna is the architect of Mexico’s war on drugs who oversaw Mexico’s federal police. The government’s evidence in the case brought against Garcia Luna will outline bribes allegedly paid to him by the Sinaloa Cartel for protection. There was detailed testimony in the El Chapo Guzman trial about Cartel bagmen twice delivering briefcases containing millions to Garcia Luna. Jesus Zambada, a former high-level member of the Sinaloa Cartel, testified that he personally made at least $6 million in cash payments to Garcia Luna, and that the Cartel maintained a $50 million bribe fund for Garcia Luna.
The ugliness of high-level corruption in many countries, not only Mexico, is a sad saga of mankind. I saw corruption firsthand when I worked undercover within the Medellin Cartel. Decades ago, when I was thought to be a trusted money launderer for drug kingpins, I was told by them about the boxes of cash they delivered to Mexican Generals that enabled them to land large commercial planes filled with cocaine on military bases, and to get a safe military escort of drug shipments to farms along the U.S. border.
In the late 1990s, I was contacted by U.S. officials to be their expert witness in a criminal trial brought against Mario Ruiz Massieu, the former Deputy Attorney General of Mexico. He accepted millions of dollars in cash from traffickers for protection and made the mistake of having an account in a Texas bank that received $9 million in cash deposits. Ruiz Massieu escaped prosecution by committing suicide. That happened several years after his brother was murdered at the hands of Raul Salinas, the brother of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas. Raul Salinas was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Testimony abounds about Raul Salinas’ involvement in drug trafficking. Swiss authorities, often considered to be conservative in their accusations, claimed that Raul was a kingpin in the cocaine trade and pocketed at least $500 million in illicit profits. His brother, former President Carlos Salinas, now lives in Ireland as a wealthy man.
We need to face the consequences of failing to address corruption. That lesson is best told through the story of an American hero, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a man who made the supreme sacrifice. Enrique was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. He migrated to the U.S., worked his way through college, served in the Marines, was a fireman, a local police officer, and then became a DEA Special Agent.
Among many other things, Kiki did undercover work in Mexico and gathered information that led to authorities locating and destroying a 220-acre marijuana plantation. Burning that plantation cost the leaders of the Guadalajara Cartel $160 million. One of the leaders of the Cartel, Rafael Caro Quintero, a drug lord that had accumulated a net worth of $1 billion in the early 80’s, orchestrated the kidnapping of Kiki on a day when he walked out of the Guadalajara Consulate on his way to have lunch with his wife. Among the men who scurried Kiki away was a Mexican police officer who had flashed his badge to Kiki.
High among the reasons for Kiki’s kidnapping was the interest Caro Quintero and the rest of the cartel had in how much DEA knew about their corruption of Mexican officials. While a doctor injected Kiki with drugs to keep him awake, he was mercilessly tortured for two days. Then, he was killed from a blow to the head with a blunt instrument. He was buried in a steel-barred chamber behind one of Caro Quintero’s homes, where Kiki’s remains were recovered.
While trying to find Kiki, DEA agents and Mexican police spotted Rafael Caro Quintero surrounded by five machine-gun toting bodyguards, strutting toward a private jet on the Guadalajara airport tarmac. When he saw the agents, Caro Quintero beckoned the Mexican police commander minding the Americans, whispered a promise of $270,000 in the commander’s ear, hugged him, and turned to the DEA agents. After taking a swig from a bottle of champagne, he raised his machine gun and said, “My children, next time bring better weapons, not little toys.” Then he laughed, got on the plan and flew to Costa Rica.
I know one of the Costa Rican officers that helped track Caro Quintero down and take him into custody. My friend was surprised that the order came to send Caro Quintero back to Mexico, rather than send him to the U.S., or simply kill him. Mexican authorities proclaimed they wanted him back badly so they could charge, convict and imprison him. They didn’t want to allow the U.S. to extradite him. In their view at the time, that would be “a violation of their sovereignty”.
Caro Quintero was “convicted” in Mexico and sent to a prison designed for 250 inmates, but the prison was converted to a palace for the comfort of Caro Quintero and another kingpin. In that prison, they installed kitchens, a living room, a dining room, offices, marble bathrooms, and a carpeted master bedroom with satin sheets. He had closets full of silk shirts, cowboy boots and cowboy hats. Women and children visited him freely. He had radios, telephones, guns and anything he wanted. He ran his cartel from the prison.
While Caro Quintero was in prison, U.S. authorities indicted him, other kingpins, and seven current or former Mexican law enforcement officials, along with the doctor that kept Kiki awake during his two days of torture.
Despite the history of Kiki’s murder and Caro Quintero’s luxurious life in a Mexican “prison”, in August 2013, only eight months after Enrique Pena Nieto took office as Mexico’s President, a Mexican court in Guadalajara abruptly dismissed the Mexican charges against Caro Quintero and released him on a “technicality”. No doubt the release of the most infamous drug kingpin in Mexico was known in advance by everyone at the top of the Mexican government. Mexican officials gave no word to U.S. authorities that this infamous killer of a DEA agent was about to walk free. He left the prison, never to be seen again. DEA has offered a $20 million reward for information leading to Caro Quintero’s capture.
It doesn’t seem a coincidence that the two most senior people of authority in Mexico at the time of Caro Quintero’s “release” are former President Enrique Pena Nieto, the man accused by Cartel hierarchy to have received a $100 million bribe, and General Cienfuegos, The Godfather indicted in the U.S. for receiving a fortune for protecting Mexican drug kingpins. Maybe someday our nation’s sovereignty and suffering will get some consideration in the eyes of Mexico’s leadership. I doubt it.
Robert Mazur was a highly decorated U.S. federal agent for 27 years. He is a court certified expert in money laundering related matters in both the U.S. and Canada. He is the NY Times Bestselling author of The Infiltrator, a memoir of his life undercover as a money launderer within the underworld, and was an Executive Producer of the internationally released film by the same name based on his book. He is now the President of KYC Solutions, a company that provides speaking, training, consulting, and expert witness services globally.
This article is expressing personal opinions and is meant for information purposes only. The article does not intend to replace professional or legal advice. It is recommended that readers seek independent professional or legal advice, or speak to authorised persons/organisations.
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