Corruption is the underworld’s most dangerous commodity | Column
A former undercover drug agent worries about what’s going on in Mexico.
In this Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, photo, Mexico's then-Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda gestures as then-U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens during a reception ceremony in Mexico City.
In this Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, photo, Mexico's then-Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda gestures as then-U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens during a reception ceremony in Mexico City. [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published Dec. 13, 2020

One of the most influential members of a lethal Mexican drug cartel was recently arrested in Los Angeles. For years, his identity had been uncertain, except that the underworld referred to him as “El Padrino” (The Godfather). His role in the underworld was well-documented.

The Godfather’s crimes were confirmed in thousands of BlackBerry messenger communications and wiretaps. He helped to arrange the transportation of drug shipments, introduced the cartel’s top leaders to corrupt Mexican government officials willing to take bribes, and much more.

Only weeks after his arrest, at the direction of U.S. Attorney General William Barr, The Godfather was released from a U.S. prison and allowed to return, a free man, to Mexico. That’s because The Godfather was Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s minister of defense from 2012 to 2018, during the entire reign of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

I saw corruption first-hand when working undercover within the Medellin Cartel, and I wrote a book about my experiences called The Infiltrator, which became a New York Times best-seller. And I don’t like what I’m seeing now.

Robert Mazur stands in front of the private jet he used during the operation when he worked undercover inside the Medellin Cartel.
Robert Mazur stands in front of the private jet he used during the operation when he worked undercover inside the Medellin Cartel. [ Courtesy of Robert Mazur ]

U.S. authorities first learned of Cienfuegos through their investigation and prosecution of another corrupt high-ranking Mexican official, Attorney General Edgar Veytia, whom the underworld knew as “El Diablo” (The Devil). Veytia’s value to the cartel included wrongfully releasing cartel members from prison, facilitating murder, committing violent acts and covering up the murders of members of rival cartels. During wiretaps, law enforcement started to pick up on references to The Godfather and his powerful role within the cartel.

Authorities got a major break when, during an intercept, members of the cartel said The Godfather was on television. Agents tuned in and saw Cienfuegos on TV.

Last month, in opposition to those in the trenches who built the case against Cienfuegos, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York filed a motion to dismiss charges against the former defense minister. According to that motion, the evidence of his critical role in international heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana conspiracies was overwhelming. But 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. It also claimed the case was dismissed to permit the Mexican investigation and prosecution of Cienfuegos to proceed.

But Mexico has made no promise to put Cienfuegos on trial, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the current president of Mexico, has expressed skepticism: “There is no impunity for anyone, but at the same time crimes will not be allowed to be fabricated. ... There must be support, evidence — no person can be the victim of an injustice.” The Mexican president claims that U.S. attempts to prosecute corrupt Mexican officials on U.S. soil are a violation of his nation’s sovereignty.

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. It is an outrage that U.S. sovereignty was violated by Mexico’s former defense minister through his acts to conspire to import tens of tons of illegal drugs into the United States. Those drugs were spilled onto the streets of U.S. cities, causing the destruction of millions of lives.

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Before succumbing to Mexico’s demands, Attorney General Barr should have paid more attention to the testimony of witnesses in major drug-related trials such as the prosecution of Joaquín “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzman. Within that testimony one can find another potential motive for the highest-ranking Mexican officials demanding former Defense Minister Cienfuegos’ release.

Alex Cifuentes, a personal aide to El Chapo, testified in U.S. District Court that a $100 million bribe was paid to former Mexican President Peña Nieto at El Chapo’s direction. He said the bribe was solicited from El Chapo by Peña Nieto in return for protection. In other words, the same president referenced by Cifuentes as the recipient of this massive bribe is the same president with whom the accused former defense minister worked closely, directing the activities of Mexico’s army.

Cifuentes also testified that the Beltran Leyva Cartel paid bribes to Felipe Calderon, president of Mexico between 2006 and 2012, and that El Chapo 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 spoke 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 Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s current president. That’s the same leader who is outraged that the U.S. government brought charges against former Defense Minister Cienfuegos.

Less than a year ago, U.S. authorities arrested Genaro Garcia Luna, the former Mexican secretary of public safety. He is the architect of Mexico’s war on drugs and 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. Testimony in the El Chapo trial detailed cartel bagmen twice delivering briefcases containing millions of dollars to Garcia Luna.

Now, Lopez Obrador wants Genaro Garcia Luna returned to Mexico to allegedly face charges, and he wants to restrict the activities of DEA agents assigned to Mexico. He wants any and all information in the possession of DEA agents in Mexico to be turned over to Mexican authorities.

The ugliness of high-level corruption in many countries, not only Mexico, is a sad saga of humankind. I saw corruption first-hand when working undercover within the Medellin Cartel. Not only did I receive information about Mexican generals allowing traffickers to land commercial-size planes on military bases where tons of drugs were offloaded and then moved to the U.S. border under military protection, I also learned how corrupt Colombian politicians intended to hide their corrupt collusion with Pablo Escobar from the world’s eyes.

I dealt undercover with a “prestigious” lawyer, Santiago Uribe, who worked closely with Colombia’s legislature. He authored a legal brief adopted by Colombian senators about how U.S. extradition of Colombian citizens for drug crimes was a violation of Colombian sovereignty. The same premise being argued today by the president of Mexico.

What the rest of the world didn’t know at the time is that Santiago Uribe was the primary attorney and consigliere for Pablo Escobar. He and Escobar wanted to stop the prosecution of traffickers in the United States so they could hide systemic corruption within the Colombian government. That law was passed in Colombia, Pablo Escobar pled guilty in Colombia, and then he lived like a king in his self-made jail, from which he directed global trafficking.

Failure to address corruption has consequences. That lesson is best told through the story of an American hero, DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a man who made the supreme sacrifice. Kiki worked undercover in Mexico and gathered information that led to the destruction of a 220-acre marijuana plantation. One of the leaders of the cartel, Rafael Caro Quintero, orchestrated the kidnapping of Kiki. With the help of corrupt Mexican police, Kiki was kidnapped because Caro Quintero and the rest of the cartel wanted to know how much DEA knew about the Cartel’s corruption of Mexican officials. Kiki was mercilessly tortured for two days. Then, he was killed by a blow to the head. He was buried in a steel-barred chamber.

While trying to find Kiki, DEA agents and Mexican police spotted Caro Quintero surrounded by five machine gun-toting bodyguards, strutting toward a private jet. When he saw the agents, he beckoned the Mexican police commander, 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 plane and flew to Costa Rica.

Cops in Costa Rica arrested Caro Quintero. Mexican authorities blocked U.S. efforts to have him extradited to the United States. They insisted that Mexican sovereignty had to be preserved through their prosecuting this drug lord.

Caro Quintero was “convicted” in Mexico and sent to a prison, but the prison was converted into a palace for his comfort and that of 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 radios, telephones, guns and anything he wanted. He ran his cartel from the prison.

In August 2013, only eight months after Peña Nieto took office as Mexico’s president, a court in Guadalajara abruptly dismissed the charges against Caro Quintero and released him on a “technicality.” Mexican officials gave no word to U.S. authorities that this infamous killer of a DEA agent was about to walk free. He has vanished into thin air. DEA has offered a $20 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Is it a coincidence that the two most senior people in Mexico at the time of Caro Quintero’s “release” were Peña Nieto, the man accused by cartel hierarchy of having received a $100 million bribe, and Cienfuegos, The Godfather indicted in the United States on charges of receiving a fortune for protecting Mexican drug kingpins. Maybe someday the United States’ sovereignty and suffering will get some consideration in the eyes of Mexico’s leadership. But I doubt it.

Robert Mazur, a federal agent for 27 years, is a court-certified expert in money-laundering related matters in both the U.S. and Canada. He is the New York Times best-selling author of “The Infiltrator,” a memoir of his life undercover as a money launderer within the underworld, and was an executive producer of the film by the same name. He is president of KYC Solutions, a company that provides speaking, training, consulting and expert witness services globally.