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New York Grand Jury Indicts Two Former Leaders of Mexico’s Drug War for Cartel Connections

One official oversaw a unit that leaked information and triggered a massacre that was the subject of a ProPublica investigation. Though the indictment doesn’t link the men to the incident, it alleges corruption at Mexico’s highest levels.

Ramón Pequeño García, above, was one of two former leaders of Mexico’s federal police indicted on Thursday by a New York grand jury. (GDA via AP Images)

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A New York grand jury on Thursday indicted two former leaders of the Mexican federal police force, including one who oversaw the anti-narcotics units that were specially vetted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and were linked to two brazen massacres in Mexico that left dozens, possibly hundreds, of people dead and missing.

The indictments marked a stunning fall from grace for Ramón Pequeño García and Luis Cárdenas Palomino, who had been celebrated by U.S. national security and diplomatic officials as trusted partners in the fight against Mexican drug cartels.

On Thursday, a federal grand jury found that instead of combating the cartels, there was evidence that the men had been collaborating with and accepting millions in bribes from them. Cárdenas Palomino had served as the director of regional operations for the federal police force between 2006 and 2012. During that time, Pequeño was head of the federal police anti-narcotics division, which controlled the DEA’s Sensitive Investigative Units.

A ProPublica investigation in 2018 found that those units had a long history of deadly leaks to drug traffickers. One of those leaks triggered a spree of violence in Allende, a Mexican ranching town about 40 minutes from the U.S. border. The massacre left scores of innocent people dead. Another leak sparked a deadly attack on innocent guests at a Holiday Inn in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey.

Thursday’s indictments do not link either Pequeño or Cárdenas Palomino directly to those incidents. However, they make clear that the disastrous leaks were part of a systemic problem that reached to the highest levels of the Mexican government. And they provided more evidence of the tragic consequences of the United States’ role in Mexico’s drug war.

The indictments are part of an investigation into Mexican government corruption that began after the conviction of Mexico’s most wanted drug trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in February 2019. In December, prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York arrested their first big target, Genaro García Luna, the former head of Mexico’s federal police force and a man so powerful that The New York Times described him as that country’s Eliot Ness, one of the America’s most famous federal law enforcement agents.

Pequeño and Cárdenas Palomino were two of García Luna’s chief lieutenants. Beginning in 2006, when García Luna was appointed to a cabinet-level position as Mexico’s security chief, the three men were celebrated on both sides of the border as the bold, new architects of Mexico’s fight against drug cartels. All three men worked closely with senior U.S. security and diplomatic officials. The United States poured hundreds of millions of dollars in training and equipment into their efforts and began sharing increasing amounts of highly sensitive intelligence.

That fight led to the arrests of dozens of kingpins but also to record numbers of deaths and disappearances. It did not stop the flow of drugs across the border. Still, Mexican and American authorities defended the fight, saying the bloodshed was a necessary evil in their efforts to dismantle the cartels. And while allegations of corruption swirled around García Luna and his team, and evidence emerged that the intelligence channels were leaky, senior American authorities, at least for a time, appeared to shrug them off.

The indictments Thursday make clear that’s changed. They allege a staggering degree of cooperation between García Luna, Pequeño and Cárdenas Palomino and one of the world’s most notorious drug cartels. The police officials agreed not to interfere with the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug shipments, most of which ended up in the United States, and to provide its leaders with sensitive information about law enforcement operations targeting the cartel, as well as its rivals. Moreover, the indictment alleges, the officials targeted those rivals for arrest, instead of Sinaloa members, and assigned corrupt officials to oversee security agencies in regions of Mexico where the Sinaloa Cartel had its operations.

One of the first U.S. cases against García Luna’s police force came in 2018 when a former chief of Mexico’s SIU, and Pequeño’s right-hand man, turned himself in to U.S. authorities in Chicago and, later, pleaded no contest to charges that he had used his position for years to collaborate with drug traffickers. Several months after that, the trial against Chapo Guzmán included testimony from a cast of major drug traffickers who described delivering suitcases of cartel cash to García Luna and his aides.

Upon hearing the news of the indictments, Andrew Selee, a longtime expert on Mexico at the Migration Policy Institute, said, “That’s incredible,” and added that they would “force us to rethink everything we thought we knew” about the recent anti-narcotics efforts in Mexico.

Eric Olson, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, was similarly stunned and said the arrests showed the ruinous results of U.S. policies in Mexico that prioritize law enforcement.

“Now we see there’s a trade-off to turning a blind eye to people like García Luna,” he said. “If you turn a blind eye, you’re going to pay a price in the long run. The price is democracy and rule of law. How is that in our interest?”

Thursday’s indictments against Pequeño and Cárdenas Palomino followed months of unsuccessful efforts by U.S. law enforcement agents and prosecutors to convince the two men to cooperate in the case against their former boss. Both remain at large in Mexico.

Meanwhile García Luna, who is alleged to have amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune in drug money, remains in custody at a federal jail in Brooklyn. Prosecutors yesterday announced that he was being indicted under the so-called Kingpin Statute, designed to target precisely the kinds of criminal leaders he was once sworn to fight. A legal expert pointed out that the statute requires prosecutors demonstrate that García Luna ran a criminal organization of five or more people, suggesting that there are more indictments to come.

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Ginger Thompson

Ginger Thompson is ProPublica's chief of correspondents.

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