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Former top Mexican official accused of taking millions in bribes from violent cartel captured in TX

Genaro Garcia Luna (Far right) (USEmbassyMEX/Flickr)

A former top law enforcement official with the Mexican government who’s been charged with taking millions in bribes from a violent drug cartel in exchange for protection had his first appearance Tuesday in federal court in Dallas after his arrest here.

Genaro Garcia Luna, 51, was arrested Monday in the parking garage next to an apartment he leases in the city. He is wanted by the feds in New York, where he was indicted Dec. 4 on four counts, including being involved in an international cocaine distribution conspiracy.

A court filing says Garcia Luna took millions in bribes from the notorious Sinaloa Cartel to allow it to “operate with impunity in Mexico.” Garcia Luna moved from Mexico to Miami in 2012 after leaving his Mexican government post and obtained lawful resident status, according to the filing in the Eastern District of New York.

Garcia Luna also is accused of lying about his past on a 2018 application for naturalization, for which he is charged with making false statements. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.

His attorney left the courtroom without talking to reporters after Tuesday’s arraignment.

A federal magistrate judge scheduled a detention hearing next week for Garcia Luna, who was dressed in jeans and a Hugo Boss zippered sweater. He spoke briefly through an interpreter to answer questions. The government wants him to remain in custody at least until transferred to New York.

Extra security was present Tuesday in the Dallas courtroom.

Some of the allegations against Garcia Luna came out in testimony during last year’s federal trial in New York of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo Guzmán.

Guzmán, Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, was convicted in February on all 10 counts against him related to his leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of Mexico’s largest and most violent drug trafficking organizations. His three-month trial featured grisly tales of murder, political bribes, jewel-encrusted guns and his famous prison escape through a tunnel. He was sentenced to life in prison in July.

During that trial, a former leader of the cartel testified about personally bringing briefcases to Garcia Luna that were stuffed with as much as $5 million.

It is unclear why Garcia Luna was in the Dallas area at the time of his arrest.

Garcia Luna served as secretary of public security in Mexico from 2006 to 2012, the New York court filing says.

“To this day, he profits from his crimes, and he has lied about them to the United States in an attempt to secure U.S. citizenship,” prosecutors said in the filing.

The indictment says the conspiracy began in 2001 when Luna was head of Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency. When he became public security secretary, Luna controlled Mexico’s Federal Police Force.

One of the Sinaloa Cartel’s tactics has been to pay off corrupt high-ranking Mexican officials to allow it to continue its successful drug trafficking enterprise despite various stated crackdowns on cartels by the Mexican government.

“Because of the defendant’s corrupt assistance, the Sinaloa Cartel conducted its criminal activity in Mexico without significant interference from Mexican law enforcement and imported multi-ton quantities of cocaine and other drugs into the United States,” the court filing says.

In exchange for the bribes, the Sinaloa Cartel “obtained safe passage for its drug shipments” as well as inside information about investigations into the cartel and intelligence about rival cartels, federal officials in New York said in a news release.

“On two occasions, the cartel personally delivered bribe payments to Garcia Luna in briefcases containing between three and five million dollars,” the news release says. “According to financial records obtained by the government, by the time Garcia Luna relocated to the United States in 2012, he had amassed a personal fortune of millions of dollars.”

He is expected to be transported to New York in the “coming weeks,” authorities say.

Richard P. Donoghue, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a news release that the arrest of Garcia Luna “demonstrates our resolve to bring to justice those who help cartels inflict devastating harm on the United States and Mexico, regardless of the positions they held.”

Prosecutors in New York said in court documents that Garcia Luna is a flight risk because of his frequent trips to Mexico, which he has visited more than 30 times during the past five years.

Garcia Luna served under the administration of Felipe Calderon, the former president of Mexico, and was one of those in charge of implementing a historic crackdown on the cartels using the Mexican military.

Calderon wrote in a tweet that he didn’t know any details of the arrest and charges but that “My position will always be in favor of justice and the law.”

Garcia Luna is listed as managing director of a security consulting firm with offices in the Miami area and in Mexico. A call to the company was not immediately returned.

Fear and corruption

Garcia Luna received a degree in mechanical engineering but launched a career in security services before Calderon choose him to help oversee Mexican law enforcement operations.

During his government career, Garcia-Luna led police reform efforts in Mexico. He told The New York Times in a 2008 profile that for police officers in Mexico, corruption is “part of their everyday life.”

He quickly dispelled any thought of negotiating with the cartels, telling the Times, “Look, I’ll tell you with all forcefulness, we are not going to make a pact with anyone. We are obligated to confront crime. That is our job, that is our duty, and we will not consider a pact.”

Garcia Luna also told the Times he felt he had a “personal obligation” to continue the fight.

He has been to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress and U.S. government agencies to advocate for U.S. aid in the war against the drug cartels.

John Walters recalled meeting with Garcia Luna several times while Walters served as head of the White House Office on Drug Control Policy during the George W. Bush administration.

“It’s sad and troubling and it shows you the danger of corruption,” said Walters, chief operating officer of the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Cartels in Mexico attempt to either bribe or assassinate those in authority who stand in their way, he said. Walters said the Dallas arrest shows how important it is that the U.S. “stand with” Mexican law enforcement and help them with anti-corruption efforts.

“We need to protect those with integrity,” Walters said.

Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York who worked on drug cases, said top officials in countries like Mexico and Guatemala are vulnerable to corruption. Often they will take the side of one cartel and crack down on the others, she said, because you can’t take on all of them.

“They can’t stay in office unless they pick a side,” she said. “You’re subjected to extraordinary pressure and threats. The corruption is just massive. And you need to ensure your future.”

It’s a reality that makes it very difficult for U.S. law enforcement to operate in those countries, she said.

“In these countries, it’s very difficult to know who to trust,” Klapper said.

Garcia Luna was the ultimate schmoozer with American diplomats, U.S. law enforcement officials and even foreign correspondents. He’d host lavish dinners at his home in Mexico City, one of several properties he owns.

Charming, with a stutter, he would end the evenings by singing karaoke songs from Juan Gabriel, Vicente Fernandez and the Rolling Stones, recalled former FBI agent Art Fontes, now a private security consultant.

“Genaro was a very effective law enforcement official who had close ties to the U.S. embassy,” said Fontes, who has a picture of him with the former top security official in Mexico. “He’s a colorful, charismatic person, very likable. We were aware of the allegations surrounding him, including ties to cartels. But we have to do our job and to do that sometimes you have to dance and talk with the devil.”


© 2019 The Dallas Morning News