Mexican ex-security chief on trial: multimillion bribe claims and a cat named cocaine

The blockbuster trial of one of Mexico’s top former law enforcement officials is drawing toward its conclusion in a Brooklyn court, with the prosecution likely to rest its case next week after providing explosive accusations from convicted criminals but little in the way of hard evidence.

Genaro García Luna, who once led Mexico’s security ministry and its bloody war against powerful cartels, is standing trial accused of conspiring to traffic drugs into the US and of taking multimillion-dollar bribes from the violent Sinaloa cartel in exchange for impunity.

Over nearly three weeks of proceedings, jurors have heard testimony from top cartel operators, an ex-police officer and a former state attorney general. Their accounts include a million-dollar cash drop at a Guadalajara car wash and a brazen kidnapping, and have even implicated a former Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, in the scheme granting the Sinaloa cartel protection.

But despite the parade of witnesses, the prosecution’s case has been surprisingly thin in terms of compelling evidence regarding García Luna’s activities, relying instead largely on the testimony of people who have themselves been convicted of graft or drug trafficking.

“We’re getting a load of quite entertaining drug dealers tell us, ‘I know that he was in the pay of the Sinaloa cartel,’” said Benjamin T Smith, professor of Latin American history at the University of Warwick and author of The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade. “But no one seems to ever give him a bag of money, because he’s not stupid.”

Arguably the most explosive accusation from the trial to date came on Tuesday, when the former attorney general of Nayarit state, Édgar Veytia, implicated former president Calderón in the effort to grant state support to the drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the imprisoned former leader of the Sinaloa cartel.

But the accusation, in which Veytia alleged that in 2011 both Calderón and García Luna had instructed the Nayarit state governor at the time to support El Chapo, was a secondhand account. Veytia was convicted on drug trafficking charges in 2019, and is serving a 20-year sentence.

Calderón, who appointed García Luna to his cabinet as security secretary in 2006, was quick to deny the allegation.

Pictured in 2012, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, right, has been implicated in the trial of Genaro García Luna, left. Photograph: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

“I categorically deny the absurd statements reported by the press made today by the witness Veytia,” the former president said on Twitter. “What he says about me is an absolute lie. I never negotiated or made pacts with criminals.”

The accusation against Calderón was just one in a series of wild cartel stories heard in the Brooklyn courthouse.

Jurors also heard from a former drug trafficker known as “The Rabbit” who fondly recalled his white cat named Perico, slang for cocaine, and was reportedly brought to tears when shown a video of his former mansion in Mexico, as well as the wild animals it housed.

Witnesses testified that at one point, the cartel kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyva had García Luna kidnapped for refusing to take his side in an increasingly violent war against El Chapo and his allies. Another former cartel leader claimed he personally gave García Luna $2.5m at an office above a car wash in the city of Guadalajara in exchange for protection.

Even the Mexican press has been implicated: on Monday, a former official in the state of Coahuila testified that García Luna paid the owner of the national El Universal newspaper millions of dollars for favorable coverage.

In a subsequent editorial, the newspaper denied the allegations, saying that witness testimonies “are only serious and credible when they are accompanied by supporting evidence”.

The newspaper’s response appeared to echo the opening statement from César de Castro, García Luna’s lead lawyer, who said the prosecution’s case was based on “rumors, speculation and the words of some of the biggest criminals in the world”, rather than “believable evidence”.

“There’s a lack of a direct smoking gun,” said Nathan Jones, an associate professor of security studies at Sam Houston State University. “It’s the descriptions of him being in the room with other people, but it’s not necessarily a wiretap or a signal intelligence or something along those lines.”

Still, the barrage of blockbuster cartel stories may be enough to swing a guilty verdict given the way Mexico’s corruption-fueled drug wars are portrayed in in US media.

“Either the Americans have some more solid piece of evidence, or the case could be really fragile,” said Gustavo Mohar, who under Calderón was general secretary of Mexico’s top intelligence agency, Cisen. “What I fear is that a jury like that must have very little information about the complexities of the fight against drugs, of corruption.”

Whatever the final verdict, there is at least one person who appears to be benefiting from the trial: the current Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or Amlo as he’s known.

“Amlo is delighted that Genaro García Luna is being prosecuted because he says, ‘Right, that’s the old regime, that’s all the corruption that went beforehand,’” said the Dope author Smith. “It’s playing directly into Amlo’s hands.”

On Thursday the head of Mexico’s anti-money-laundering unit accused García Luna of embezzling more than $745m through government technology contracts while he was in office and for several years afterward.

The former security secretary “wove a web of corruption and money laundering to benefit himself and his close associates”, said Pablo Gómez Álvarez, the head of Mexico’s financial intelligence unit, during a news conference.

Back in New York, prosecutors have said they planned to show the jury a series of photos depicting García Luna’s plush lifestyle while in office as he was allegedly receiving money from the Sinaloa cartel, including a “photo of the defendant driving a Lamborghini taken in 2010”.

The prosecution said it will probably rest its case on Tuesday morning, with the defense then set to call its own witnesses – including possibly members of US law enforcement and, potentially, García Luna himself.

“If he’s got a half-decent defense lawyer, we’re going to have an entire week of him pulling in character witnesses from the DEA,” said Smith. In any case, jurors may finally hear from “people who haven’t been in jail for drugs”.

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