García Luna, 51, who left the security post nearly a decade ago, was charged in federal court in New York with three counts of trafficking cocaine and one count of making false statements. He was arrested Monday outside Dallas and at his initial appearance Tuesday his bail hearing was set for Dec. 17. He moved to the U.S. in 2012 and has been living in Florida.
“This wasn't a surprise,” said Samuel González, who served as Mexico’s chief organized crime prosecutor in a prior administration. González said he turned down offers to work with García Luna in the 2000s, noting that “it wasn't a question of if, but rather when” Garcia Luna would be charged.
García Luna was public safety secretary in President Felipe Calderon's Cabinet from 2006 to 2012, playing a key role in setting the government's security strategy during some of the worst and most embarrassing moments of bloody drug war that resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people and tens of thousands more missing.
Calderon tweeted Tuesday night that he knew about the accusations against his former security chief, and said his security policy was not made by any one official and was marked by a high level of cooperation with the U.S.
As security chief, García Luna was widely feared and in charge of Mexico’s federal police and the rest of the civilian security apparatus, giving him unrivaled access to intelligence about law enforcement operations and investigations that U.S. prosecutors say he shared with the Sinaloa cartel. Calderon’s administration was criticized at the time by many who argued it was not as aggressive against the Sinaloa cartel as it was against the gang's rivals.
Before joining Calderon’s government, García Luna led Mexico’s equivalent of the FBI, the Federal Investigative Agency, under President Vicente Fox. For José Reveles, a journalist and author of several books on organized crime, García Luna was “the omnipotent cop of Vicente Fox and later Felipe Calderon." He was an official few dared to clash with, Reveles added, and the questions that have arisen about him are numerous.
Reveles said that in 2005, during the Fox administration, agents from the Federal Investigative Agency “were capturing Zetas (members of a rival cartel) and turning them over to the Sinaloa cartel.” Anti-drug prosecutor Santiago Vasconcelos made that accusation public, but later died in a plane crash.
In December of that year, García Luna's agents detained French citizen Florence Cassez and held her illegally until they could stage a media event. She was paraded before TV cameras and forced to participate in a staged, televised reenactment of her capture. She was held for seven years on kidnapping charges, but was released and became a cause celebre in her homeland.
In 2008, banners began appearing across the country claiming García Luna was working for the Sinaloa cartel. Reveles, who was then covering the congress and had access to documents, said that in 2008 Mexican lawmakers took closed-door testimony from federal agents that García Luna’s convoy had been intercepted in the state of Morelos by members of the Beltran Lleyva cartel, which had broken from the Sinaola cartel. The agents reported that García Luna was taken to meet with Arturo Beltran Lleyva, one of the cartel’s leaders, Reveles said. García Luna denied all of it.
A 2011 Televisa telenovela called “The Team” that portrayed federal police as crime-fighting heroes was allegedly the brainchild of García Luna and financed with government money. The honest, well-trained and brave officers portrayed on the show were at odds with the public’s longstanding perception of Mexico's police.
In 2012, arrested U.S. drug gang leader Édgar Valdez Villarreal, alias “La Barbie,” claimed in an open letter that he had paid off García Luna. Also in 2012, rife drug corruption in the federal police force burst into the open when one federal officer opened fire on his colleagues at Mexico City's international airport.
And finally, in 2012, 14 Mexican agents under Garcia Luna's command opened fire on an SUV carrying two U.S. CIA agents near Mexico City after Mexican officials claimed their agents mistook the Americans' vehicle for one driven by gang members.
Despite all that, Mexico security analyst Alejandro Hope noted, the U.S. government apparently vetted Garcia Luna, praised the drug busts he carried out, and allowed him to live in the United States for about seven years before charging him.
“Why now?” Hope asked. While the accusations have long been out there it was unclear whether the timing of the charges could be explained by some unknown deal within the complex U.S.-Mexico relationship on drug trafficking or if it stemmed from testimony in the U.S. trial of notorious drug boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Guzmán was tried in New York in 2018. At his trial, former cartel member Jesus Zambada testified that he personally made at least $6 million in hidden payments to García Luna on behalf of his older brother, cartel boss Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, in 2005-2007.
“I believe he enriched himself, but I don't know if it was from that (drug cartel bribes),” Hope said. If so, it was extreme arrogance or stupidity, Hope said. He said there are a lot of ways a Cabinet secretary with budget authority and influence could enrich himself, but just one way that would be guaranteed to draw the ire of the U.S. government.
U.S. authorities said Tuesday that García Luna had amassed a fortune of millions, well beyond what a public servant could expect to earn. González, the former prosecutor, said that “this issue was obvious.”
He added, “you can’t hide money that easily.” Guillermo Valdes, the former intelligence chief in Calderon’s administration, expressed surprise at García Luna’s arrest, saying, “The guy I knew and who I dealt with did his job.”
But Valdes said the arrest would be an opportunity to clarify the allegations that have swirled round García Luna for years. “If he was corrupt he should be punished, and if not his name should be cleared,” Valdes said.
Associated Press writer Tom Hays in New York contributed to this report.