Mexico’s former safety chief goes on trial in US drug case

Jan 22, 2023, 7:30 PM | Updated: Jan 23, 2023, 3:52 pm
In this courtroom sketch, government witness Villarreal Barragan ("El Grande") testifies via interp...

In this courtroom sketch, government witness Villarreal Barragan ("El Grande") testifies via interpreter who stands at podium in the trial against Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico's former Secretary of Public Safety, in court, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. An anonymous jury has gotten its first look at a rare U.S. trial of a former cabinet-level Mexican official charged with taking bribes to aid drug traffickers he was supposed to be neutralizing. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

(Elizabeth Williams via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Shielded by anonymity and extra security, jurors got their first look Monday at a rare U.S. trial of a former cabinet-level Mexican official charged with taking bribes to aid drug traffickers he was supposed to be neutralizing.

After blowing a kiss to his wife and daughter in the courtroom gallery, Genaro García Luna, who once was Mexico’s top security official, watched with little outward reaction as opening statements began. His case folds in Mexico’s politics, its vast and violent drug trade, uncomfortable connections between the two, and delicate U.S.-Mexico relations about fighting drugs and corruption.

García Luna is accused of accepting millions of dollars to let the notorious Sinaloa cartel operate with impunity as it sent tons of cocaine to the U.S.

“The person who’s supposed to be in charge of fighting the Sinaloa cartel was actually its most valued asset … and with his help, the cartel made millions,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Pilmar told jurors. He called García Luna “a man who betrayed both his country and ours.”

He said that while García Luna portrayed himself to both countries as a drug enforcement hero, he saw to it that the cartel got information on investigations, smooth passage for its cocaine through police checkpoints, and police escorts — and sometimes even badges — for cartel members. Officers hand-delivered drug shipments from airports and acted as mercenaries to kill people whom the cartels wanted gone, Pilmar said.

García Luna’s lead lawyer, César de Castro, told jurors that the government’s case rested on “rumors, speculation and the words of some of the biggest criminals in the world.”

“No money, no photos, no video, no texts, no emails, no recordings, no documents — no credible, believable evidence that Genaro García Luna helped the cartel,” the lawyer said in his opening statement. He described the case as “a very public and angry display” by a U.S. government that is forsaking a onetime drug-fighting partner whose diligent work made him enemies: corrupt police officers, politicians who opposed the anti-drug war, and cartels. Traffickers are taking the stand to lessen their own punishments and exact revenge, the attorney argued.

“Don’t let the cartels play you,” he told jurors in his opening statement.

They soon heard a different story from former police officer-turned-cartel insider Sergio Villarreal Barragan, known as “El Grande.”

He testified about joint Sinaloa-police raids on the rival Gulf cartel’s operations in the city of Monterrey; police officers letting him set up routes to move 800 to 1,200 kilograms (1,764 to 2,646 pounds) of cocaine multiple times a week through the state of Chiapas; and police tipping the cartel to forthcoming searches so the traffickers could clear out beforehand.

Villarreal Barragan recalled that after some Sinaloa cartel drugs were seized in the state of Sonora, he got the contraband released by reminding the regional police commander that the cartel had gotten him placed in his job.

During all these alleged episodes in the early 2000s, García Luna headed the federal police force — and got payoffs from the Sinaloa group, according to Villarreal Barragan. He described García Luna picking up duffel bags full of cash at a Mexico City safe house and collecting $14 million in cardboard boxes at a warehouse full of cocaine that police had seized from the Gulf gang and turned over to its Sinaloa rivals.

Cartel leaders viewed García Luna as “the best investment they had,” said Villarreal Barragan, who pleaded guilty himself to drug trafficking. García Luna’s lawyers haven’t yet had their turn to question him.

García Luna led Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency from 2001 to 2005, then served as secretary of public security to then-President Felipe Calderon from 2006 to 2012.

García Luna was seen as the point man in Calderon’s bloody war on cartels and as a key ally in a U.S. anti-drug-trafficking initiative that started in former President George W. Bush’s administration and provided Mexico’s police with equipment, technology and training. Photos shown in court depict García Luna with former U.S. President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Sen. John McCain and other high-ranking officials.

But García Luna also was dogged by allegations of ties to drug traffickers.

Then, during former Sinaloa kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s trial in New York, a former cartel member testified in 2018 that he personally delivered at least $6 million in payoffs to García Luna, and that cartel members had agreed to pool up to $50 million to bribe him.

García Luna, who moved to Miami after leaving his government post, was arrested in 2019 in Texas and has since been held without bail in a federal lockup. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of drug trafficking and engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. The 54-year-old could face decades in prison if convicted.

Current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist, has welcomed the trial, which could spotlight corruption on a conservative predecessor’s watch.

García Luna is being tried in the same Brooklyn federal courthouse where Guzman was convicted of running a sprawling international drug-smuggling operation for decades.

Like Guzman, García Luna is facing jurors whose names are kept secret. They also are escorted to and from the courthouse by deputy U.S. marshals and sequestered from the public while inside.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - People visit the Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida...
Associated Press

Florida to begin session on Disney district, migrant flights

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida lawmakers will meet Monday to complete a state takeover of Walt Disney World’s self-governing district and expand a migrant relocation program, key conservative priorities of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis ahead of his expected White House run. Republican leaders of the statehouse, in coordination with DeSantis, have ordered the Legislature to […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Media watchdog urges release of journalist detained in Kabul

PARIS (AP) — Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders along with 14 French media outlets and production companies on Monday called on Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers to release a journalist imprisoned for a month in Kabul. In a joint statement, RSF and French media said journalist Mortaza Behboudi, with dual French and Afghan citizenship, was arrested on […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Liz Weston: ‘Bridge’ your way to Social Security

Delaying the start of Social Security benefits is a powerful way for retirees to cope with inflation, survive bad investment markets and reduce the risk they’ll run short of money. The advantages of waiting are so great that financial planners often recommend their clients tap other savings, such as retirement funds, to help them delay […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

48 arrested in Europe over encrypted app used in drug trade

BERLIN (AP) — European investigators have shut down an encrypted communication service that was used as a secure channel for organized crime, particularly in the drug trade, and arrested 48 people, German authorities said Monday. More than 70 properties were searched in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Poland on Friday, when the arrests were made, […]
1 day ago
NATO's Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoana, left, and Norway's Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store, ...
Associated Press

Norway looks to donate $7.3 billion in aid to Ukraine

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — Oil-rich Norway is looking to donate 75 billion kroner ($7.3 billion) to Kyiv as part of a five-year support package that would make the Scandinavian country one of the world’s biggest donors to war-torn Ukraine, the Norwegian government said Monday. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said the money would be split […]
1 day ago
A woman walks out from a residential building which was hit by a Russian rocket, in the city center...
Associated Press

Russian forces keep up pressure as Ukraine anniversary nears

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces are keeping Ukrainian troops tied down with fighting in the eastern Donbas region as Moscow assembles additional combat power there for an expected offensive in the coming weeks, Ukrainian officials said Monday. Weeks of intense fighting continued to rage around the city of Bakhmut and the nearby towns of […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.
SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Mexico’s former safety chief goes on trial in US drug case