Former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on a Drug Enforcement Administration warrant, three US law enforcement officers told NBC News late Thursday.
The arrest was confirmed by Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard Twitter, who said he was informed of the detention by US Ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau.
“The consul in Los Angeles will inform me of the charges in the next few hours,” Ebrard wrote. “I keep you updated.”
The charges and the details and circumstances of the arrest are yet to be disclosed. DEA officials have not specified which DEA office is handling the Cienfuegos case.
General Cienfuegos, 72, was Minister of Defense from 2012 to 2018 under former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and a powerful figure in the country’s drug war, in which the military fought cartels across the country.
Peña Nieto served six years until December 2018. Several members of his cabinet and party have been implicated in high-level corruption cases, sometimes including allegations of links to organized crime.
Under Cienfuegos, the army was charged with extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses, including the 2014 Tlatlaya massacre, in which 22 members of the drug gang were executed.
The armed forces have played an increasingly important role in fighting crime in Mexico, and have been viewed by some as being less prone to corruption than the police.
The arrest of Cienfuegos follows the arrest of ex-President Felipe Calderon’s security minister, Genaro Garcia Luna, in Texas in 2019.
Luna is on trial in New York on suspicion of taking millions in bribes from Joaquin’s “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, which he has been tasked with fighting.
It has long been rumored that elements of the army in the northern state of Sinaloa have ties to the cartel formerly led by crime king Guzman, who controlled much of the illegal drug trade in the western hemisphere for nearly three decades.
Guzman is now in a US prison after receiving a life sentence of plus 30 years in July.
The US and Mexican governments portrayed Guzman’s arrest and conviction as a great victory, but analysts say his Sinaloa cartel continued to hum without him in its reign of terror from its base in Culiacan.
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The high-level arrest of Cienfuegos comes less than three weeks before the US presidential election.
President Donald Trump, who was seeking a second term, made curbing cartel activity a major political goal when he took office in 2017.
The war against the cartels has hit the Mexican people hard. Since 2006, there have been 150,000 organized crime-related murders in Mexico Research report of the congress released this year. According to the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 73,000 people were reported missing from 2007 to mid-2020.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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