February 27, 2023
The Trial of Genaro Garcia Luna
Last Tuesday, after a relatively brief trial and jury deliberation in a New York courtroom, Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former Secretary of Public Security, was convicted of one count of participation in a criminal conspiracy, three counts of conspiring to traffic cocaine, and one count of lying to US immigration officials. García Luna, who served as a high-ranking law enforcement official for more than a decade prior to leaving office in 2012, is best known for his role implementing aggressive anti-drug policies during the administration of Felipe Calderón. Those policies, which ostensibly sought to control organized criminal activity, contributed to a catastrophic wave of violence that has yet to recede.
García Luna was a principal protagonist of this story. He played a major role in the restructuring of Mexico’s federal police, centralizing authority, responsibility, and firepower in the Policía Federal (PF) in 2009. That force would receive significant support from the United States through the Mérida Initiative, establishing an extensive surveillance and intelligence infrastructure that increased García Luna’s power dramatically. It is in this context that the trial’s revelations are particularly troubling: at a moment when substantial resources were being poured into a law enforcement agency that made a show of integrity and effectiveness, that same agency was simultaneously fundamentally corrupted.
The trial did not, however, offer a comprehensive—or even compelling—picture of what occurred. The evidence presented was fragmentary, and it fell short of the complete accounting that many observers hoped for. Ultimately, García Luna’s conviction closes a chapter, but there are still more questions than answers about both the past and the future. What does the case tell us about the drug war? What are the implications for the future of US-Mexico security cooperation? Moving beyond the narco-novela stories of cash-filled duffel bags and clandestine meetings, there are four important considerations to understand the significance of the guilty verdict:
First, García Luna may represent an extreme case, but he is not unique. Even a cursory review of the history of drug trafficking reveals that police and military officials have long played a central role in organizing, structuring, and controlling illicit activities. This rogues’ gallery includes Arturo Durazo (head of Mexico City police in the late 1970s), Guillermo González Calderoni (federal Judicial Police commander during the 1980s and 1990s), Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo (Army general and anti-drug czar in the 1990s), among others. Including state and local officials, this list would extend several pages. Placing García Luna in this context does not diminish his significance—he held a cabinet-level position—but does suggest that rather than treating him as an outlier, we should reflect on the ongoing utility of corruption and collusion within the context of an unwinnable war. In other words, we have been here before and it is likely we will meet again in Judge Cogan’s courtroom.
Rather than an anomaly, then, the dynamics of the drug trade mean that there will always be García Lunas because they are a necessary figure for both criminals and the government. The intermediation offered by “corrupt” actors allows for backchannel management of illicit activity that provides tangible benefits. Indeed, this reality shapes popular perception and persistent cynicism: García Luna’s guilt was long assumed even as the precise nature of his corruption remained a mystery.
Second, despite García Luna’s conviction in a US court, the trial does not demonstrate a sudden US interest in eradicating corruption, nor does it reflect a sudden partnership between the two governments to do so. Rather, it is a reminder that security policy is not insulated from political considerations. The Mexican government protested vehemently when General Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested in Los Angeles on charges very similar to those García Luna faced. The diplomatic crisis ultimately ended when the US dropped all charges and a cursory investigation in Mexico exonerated the general, a series of events that reflected the López Obrador administration’s partnership with SEDENA. García Luna, conversely, was closely tied with the Calderón administration and his conviction was a political boon for López Obrador.
From the US perspective as well, the decision to prosecute García Luna seems to reflect less a preoccupation with corruption and more the hard truth that he had outlived his utility. In anonymous interviews for a recently released report for the US Institute of Peace, former officials described a selective blindness that allows for partnerships if there is a “willingness to collaborate against certain trafficking organizations…even when it is clear that Mexican authorities are colluding with a rival group. Another source noted that, as true of García Luna and the vetted units he oversaw, ‘they may be dirty, but they can also still be effective in catching criminals’.”
In that sense, the conviction is unlikely to significantly affect US-Mexico security cooperation. Although the relationship has been challenged of late, the fundamental nature of interactions and the terms of the underlying agreements remain in place. Mexican authorities cooperate with the US when it serves their interests, and when it meets a semi-mutual objective. For both sides, those motivations are not always about stopping drugs or reducing violence.
Third, the trial is a reminder that our knowledge of the criminal world and the negotiations that make the drug trade possible is fragmentary at best and invented at worst. The prosecutors offered no smoking gun—the trial lacked the recordings or financial investigations that many expected—and instead made their case through witness testimony. That testimony, much of it provided by notorious criminals, was convincing only inasmuch as various stories coincided. That other drug war corruption cases, such as that of Iván Reyes Arzate or Jose Irizarry, had more substantive evidence including wiretaps or forensic accounting, makes their absence here all the more notable. Indeed, one could reasonably wonder whether or not the evidence presented against García Luna would have sufficed to convict a US government official, and if the jury’s decision was in part a reflection of popular stereotypes surrounding corrupt Mexican cops.
The lack of truly compelling evidence allows for two interpretations. First, that prosecutors held back information due to political pressure. The decision to make inadmissible any discussion of García Luna’s activities post-2012 may have limited the government’s case, and it is very well possible that a choice was made to suppress evidence that would have laid bare what US authorities knew during the years they enthusiastically cooperated with him. A second interpretation is that while much of our knowledge of these criminal underworlds is filtered through law enforcement, as Christy Thornton has observed, it may well be that at times US law enforcement is as reliant on suspicion, rumor, and imagination as the rest of us.
Fourth, despite the trial’s focus on shipments of cocaine and bags of cash, it is important not to lose sight of the local impacts of García Luna’s actions. When security policy is shaped by corruption it often has profound effects on citizen welfare and human rights, even if those concerns never emerge in US courtrooms. Torreón-based journalist, Javier Garza, has described how García Luna’s capricious strategies contributed to uncontrolled violence in La Laguna, and such breakdowns likely explain events elsewhere. In Sinaloa, García Luna facilitated the return to power of notoriously corrupt police commander Jesús Antonio Aguilar Íñiguez in 2011, leading to a surge in violence and disappearances as authorities allied with the Sinaloa Cartel to displace the Beltran Leyva organization. Such suffering is, tragically, García Luna’s true legacy.
In Case You Missed It: Manipulating security takes many forms, and García Luna is but one example. In a new report for the US Institute of Peace, Mexico Violence Resource Project co-founders Michael Lettieri and Cecilia Farfán examine how and why security policy is warped to serve private ends. The report examines the case of Nayarit under Roberto Sandoval and Sinaloa under Quirino Ordaz. In the first case, the story of the regime’s egregious malfeasance and horrific human rights violations is relatively well known, but the report emphasizes the structural dynamics—the way militarized security forces and a lack of transparency facilitated those abuses. Crucially, it argues that Nayarit should have been a warning, but US policymakers have yet to learn from it and continue to support powerful, unaccountable local security structures (particularly strong fiscalías) that fail to create long-term stable improvements in citizen security.
The second case is more opaque, and perhaps more troubling. Using the example of Sinaloa under Quirino Ordaz, the report argues that politicians and SEDENA leadership cut deals to militarize security out of private—not public—interest. In effect, militarization was a form of manipulation. Because much of this was about both political strategies (Ordaz presented SEDENA’s deployments as a security ‘panacea’) and deliberately murky financial transactions, it is often overlooked, but the evidence is compelling.
Ultimately, the takeaway is this: "In both Nayarit and Sinaloa, the militarization and expanding power of security institutions led to decreases in transparency that facilitated corruption and increases in arbitrary practices that contributed to human rights abuses. A key finding here is that security institutions with greater institutional power vis-à-vis political and civil society counterweights are not necessarily immune to capture. In particular, the consolidation of institutional power and the militarization of security strategies without civilian oversight has created scenarios where corruption has extreme consequences… In cases as diverse as Nayarit and Sinaloa, it becomes clear that policies that sideline civil society and facilitate the concentration of power are significant threats to truly effective security institutions.”
Read the report here: https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/02/elite-capture-and-corruption-security-sectors