The close ties that the United States has been slowly building with the Mexican military have taken a huge blow with the news that former Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested shortly after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport. 

The government alleges that Cienfuegos assisted the H-2 cartel, which was previously led by the late Juan Francisco Patron Sanchez. The cartel was based in Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico.

Cienfuegos, who was Mexico’s Defense Minister from 2012 to 2018 was arrested on warrants from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). He is facing four counts in the Eastern District Court of New York. These include: international heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana manufacture and distribution conspiracy; importation and distribution conspiracies; and conspiracy to launder narcotics proceeds.

“The defendant abused [his] public position to help the H-2 Cartel, an extremely violent Mexican drug trafficking organization, traffic thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana into the United States, including New York City,” the U.S. government released in a statement.

“In exchange for bribe payments, he permitted the H-2 Cartel — a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder — to operate with impunity in Mexico.”

The arrest of Cienfuegos is sending shockwaves through both sides of the border. It is rare to see anyone of a high rank being arrested, let alone someone of Cienfuegos rank and position. In Mexico, the army is generally seen as the only institution that is above the corruption linked to the drug cartels that has enveloped the country.

Cienfuegos was seen as a key individual who had fostered close cooperation with Mexico’s defense secretariat known as “SEDENA” and a deeper relationship with the United States military. 

Mexico’s military, especially SEDENA, has always been lukewarm about creating deep relationships with the Pentagon, which it regards as more of a potential enemy than an ally.

This is a difficult time for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. His appointee for Defense Minister, General Luis Cresencio Sandoval, is an officer with an outsider reputation within SEDENA. Lopez Obrador has also been trying to give the military more power and influence, and increase its trustworthiness.

On Friday, the President went out of his way to praise SEDENA and General Sandoval while singling out Cienfuegos. 

“It is a very regrettable fact that a former defense secretary is detained, accused of drug trafficking,” President López Obrador said during a press briefing.

“I always said it was not just a crisis, but a decadence, what was happening. A process of progressive degradation and we are now seeing the depth of this decomposition.” 

“This is an unmistakable example of the decomposition of the government, of how civil service was degrading, the government service during the neoliberal period,” López Obrador added.

Already, several years ago, there had been rumors that American DEA agents trusted Mexican Marines more than Army personnel.