MEXICO CITY — A former Mexican defense minister was arrested on Thursday night after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport with his family, according to the Mexican government. He is the first high-ranking military official to be taken into custody in the United States in connection with drug-related corruption.
The former official, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who was Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018, was arrested by the United States authorities at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration and will face drug and money-laundering charges, according to a federal law enforcement official.
The news not only casts a pall over the nation’s fight against organized crime, it also underscores the forces of corruption that touch the highest levels of Mexico’s government. General Cienfuegos’s arrest is also certain to send chills through the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
“There has never been a minister of defense in Mexico arrested,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister. “The minister of defense in Mexico is a guy that not only runs the army and is a military man, but he reports directly to the president. There is no one above him except the president.”
General Cienfuegos served as defense minister at a time when homicides spiked to historic levels and drug cartels waged war.
“This is a huge deal” said Alejandro Madrazo, a professor at CIDE, a university in Mexico City. “The military has become way more corrupt and way more abusive since the war on drugs was declared, and for the first time they may not be untouchable — but not by the Mexican government, by the American government.”
Mexico’s military has played a central role in public security since the crackdown on the drug cartels began in 2006, deploying soldiers to regions overrun by organized crime. The secretary of defense oversees that effort.
This is a developing story.