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Arrest of former defense minister shatters trust in Mexico's armed forces

The general's speech was forceful and unequivocal, his demeanor somber and severe. Impeccably dressed in full military uniform, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, then Mexican Secretary of Defense, spoke before a group of thousands of Mexican soldiers under his command on a spring day in April 2016 at Military Camp Number One, near Mexico City.

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Rafael Romo
, Senior Latin American Affairs Editor
CNN — The general's speech was forceful and unequivocal, his demeanor somber and severe. Impeccably dressed in full military uniform, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, then Mexican Secretary of Defense, spoke before a group of thousands of Mexican soldiers under his command on a spring day in April 2016 at Military Camp Number One, near Mexico City.

"Those who act like criminals," the general said, reading from prepared remarks, "those who disrespect people, those who disobey -- not only are they breaking the law but are not worthy of belonging to the armed forces."

At the time, Cienfuegos Zepeda was reacting to a video showing several soldiers torturing a suspect. The video of the crying woman, sitting on the floor with her hands tied behind her back, had gone viral in Mexico, tarnishing the reputation of an army that had been increasingly used by then President Enrique Peña Nieto and his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, for law enforcement purposes, especially for Mexico's war on drugs.

The general's words now sound hollow. The man in charge of the Mexican armed forces between 2012 and 2018 was arrested Thursday upon his arrival at Los Angeles International Airport. According to federal prosecutors, the 72-year-old faces drug and money laundering charges.

Cienfuegos Zepeda, who served 54 years in the Mexican armed forces, is accused of taking bribes in exchange for allowing a Mexican drug cartel, known for gruesome acts of violence, to operate with impunity in Mexico.

Now what?

The arrest of general Cienfuegos Zepeda has shaken not only the armed forces but also the trust Mexicans have had in the military for generations.

A 2017 survey conducted by Parametría, a Mexican polling firm, concluded that six in 10 Mexicans agreed the military should continue doing security work on the streets. The survey also showed the armed forces were among the most trusted institutions in the country, a finding that had remained favorable for the military for the preceding 15 years.

Local and federal police forces lost the trust of the Mexican people a long time ago. After all, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, aka "The Godfather," leader of the Guadalajara Cartel at its height in the 1980s and blamed for the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985, started his career as a federal police agent.

For two decades, presidents have entrusted anti-narcotics enforcement to the military -- from right-wing Vicente Fox in the early 2000s, to his successor, Felipe Calderón, who declared a war on drug cartels at the beginning of his presidency in 2006, to the Enrique Peña Nieto and the current president, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

They have done so precisely because the armed forces were perceived as trustworthy and incorruptible. For many Mexicans, the arrest of general Cienfuegos Zepeda, who also served as director of Mexico's Heroic Military College, the most prestigious of its kind, poses a tricky question: Now what?

Ramón Celaya Gamboa, a retired lieutenant colonel who works as a military law professor, said the arrest of a former Mexican Secretary of Defense is not only "unprecedented" but a huge blow to the Mexican government and its armed forces.

"The sole detention of general Cienfuegos has already had a strong impact in the media," Celaya Gamboa told CNN. "It affects the army's credibility as a whole and it also affects the credibility of the Mexican government. It reinforces the image many have abroad of Mexico as a country of drug traffickers."

In Mexico City, the arrest became conversation topic number one overnight. To many Mexicans, the Cienfuegos Zepeda case strikes at the heart of Mexico's fight against drug trafficking and transnational criminal organizations that have managed to corrupt government officials at the highest levels.

Arturo Alcántara, 38, a psychologist, considered the arrest "something negative regarding Mexico's image and regarding Mexico's fight against corruption."

"If in the end it's proven that Cienfuegos is guilty, that means one of the people that was in charge of the Mexican war on drugs was corrupted by organized crime," Alcántara said.

Others, like accountant Alejandro Barrera, 34, have a let's-wait-and-see attitude.

"This gentleman has to go through the whole legal process, and let's hope that he's not a guinea pig just because he's a high political target," Barrera said. "They have to first demonstrate he's guilty and, if that's the case, he has to be punished."

Jesús Esquivel, U.S.-based correspondent who writes for the Mexican weekly "Proceso," says the general's arrest did not surprise him. Esquivel has investigated corruption within the Mexican police and armed forces for years, and he says he had learned through sources about the upcoming arrest of a high-profile former Mexican official, a story he did not publish to avoid compromising the investigation.

"He [Cienfuegos Zepeda] is being linked with the Beltrán-Leyva criminal organization, which dominated [the Mexican state of] Guerrero, trafficking cocaine, heroin and marijuana to the New York region when he was an officer in Mexico's Ninth Military Region," Esquivel said. "That's why the case's jurisdiction will fall upon the Brooklyn federal court."

Reach of Mexican criminal groups

The District Court for the Eastern District of New York is the same one where Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, was found guilty of drug trafficking and other charges. He was sentenced in July 2019 to life in prison plus 30 years and ordered to pay $12.6 million in forfeiture.

Cienfuegos Zepeda's case is not the first time US law enforcement targets a high-profile Mexican official. Genaro García Luna, who served as secretary of public security from 2006 to 2012 during the administration of President Calderón, pleaded not guilty last December to charges related to a drug trafficking conspiracy after being arrested in Dallas, Texas. Federal prosecutors say García Luna allegedly accepted millions of dollars in bribes from El Chapo.

Esquivel, the Mexican journalist, says Cienfuegos Zepeda may have a lot of information he may be willing to share with federal prosecutors, given he was in a position to know possible links between criminal organizations and the upper echelons of the Mexican government during several administrations.

"What we don't know is whether the US Department of Justice is going to offer a plea deal so that the general may become a cooperating or protected witness, and that's what we will see once he appears in front of the magistrate in Brooklyn, New York," Esquivel said.

Mike Vigil, who served as Special Agent in Charge of the DEA's Caribbean and San Diego Divisions, says Cienfuegos Zepeda's arrest is a glaring example of the strength and reach that transnational Mexican criminal organizations have, especially when it comes to their power to bribe.

"Drug cartels in Mexico, including the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation, have become very powerful," Vigil told CNN. "They're making a lot of money, and it is very easy for them to bribe high-ranking officials."

Vigil also says this high-profile arrest illustrates a lack of trust between law enforcement agencies in Mexico and the US.

"This investigation was carried over during many years and there was no coordination with Mexico because Cienfuegos had many contacts inside the government," Vigil said. "Had he been informed he was a target of an investigation, he would've never been captured because he would've never come to the United States. The formal complaint was sealed until his Thursday arrest in Los Angeles."

At a July 2015 ceremony in Mexico City, where he received a prestigious award for his decades of service, general Cienfuegos Zepeda reflected on every Mexican's responsibility to create a better country.

"We should ask ourselves, what are we doing to bring about peace? What kind of country are we hoping to leave for the next generations of Mexicans?" Cienfuegos Zepeda rhetorically asked those in attendance. "More specifically, what kind of Mexico do we want?"

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