Cienfuegos, Another Notch in the DEA’s Smoking Gun

Former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. Photo:


The denial for a $750,000 bail by California Federal District Judge Alexander F. Mackinnon to former Mexico Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda on Tuesday, Oct. 20, in Los Angeles set the stage for a drawn-out trial. Now what remains for the 72-year-old former soldier is a long and windy road to hell. Cienfuegos has gone from riches to rags — and worse yet ,to shackles.

This new U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation comes in  to a long line of investigations of Mexican military, particularly the army personnel that allegedly got involved in the business of drug trafficking.

Over the years, this reporter has been piling up some information on Mexican military arrests – or intents to do so on DEA accusations – and surely, they are now the focus of many a sensationalist book in Mexico.

However, for our beloved Pulse News Mexico readers, here is an incomplete – but brief – recap of some of those incidents involving Mexico’s military crème de la crème:

The first incident that comes to mind was one that took place in San Diego involving former Defense Secretary Juan Arévalo Gardoqui, who served under President Miguel de la Madrid. At the time this reporter lived in Tijuana, and, as a freelance writer, covered border customs affairs for several publications ,both in Tijuana, in Spanish, and San Diego, in English. (A dream come true for a bilingual journalist.)

One day, while visiting the weekly newspaper La Prensa in downtown San Diego, the news broke that U.S. Customs had detained an official Mexican airplane at the airport. As it turned out, it was not merely “an official” aircraft, but De la Madrid’s personal plane, a sort of Air Force 1 Mexicana. DEA officials suspected the plane was carrying a ton load of cocaine.

After boarding, customs officials found that the plane, assigned for the day to then- Mexican Defense Secretary Juan Arévalo, was carrying neither the president nor the defense secretary, but rather a touring group of military officers visiting San Diego. After a canine division revision, the plane and the officials were let go. Welcome to the USA!

Nevertheless, the DEA inspection inflicted official embarrassment on the Mexican government, since the Foreign Relations Secretariat through the local San Diego Consulate, had to intervene. Surely, there was an “oops” reaction from the DEA and San Diego Customs authorities; the issue went no further.

This incident is merely a preamble of what was to come regarding the not-so-friendly relationship between the DEA and the Mexican Army. Fortunately for the DEA, it investigations eventually bore fruits and landed several Mexican military culprits in the slammer.

The first fat cat to go under was General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, who, when arrested in 1997, was the director of the National Institute to Combat Drugs – also known as the Mexican Drug Czar – under President Ernesto Zedillo. Gutiérrez Rebollo was accused of protecting drug trafficker and Juárez Cartel leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes, nicknamed “the Lord of the Heavens.” After a noisy trial, the general was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in a Mexican prison.

A year later, in 1998, Tijuana garrison chief, General Alfredo Navarro Lara was accused by the local representative of the Federal Attorney General’s Office of offering a million dollars in cash for them to let the Arellano Félix cartel operate in the city. He went to military court and was given a 20-year sentence.

At the same time, Judge Olga Navarro Sánchez sentenced General Jorge Maldonado Vega to 26 years in prison on similar charges, but after serving four years, he was pardoned by another judge claiming “insufficient evidence” of Maldonado having served as tje personal bodyguard to Juárez Cartel boss Vicente Carrillo Fuentes.

In the year 2000 — Y2K, as we used to call the first year of the millennial — there was the media buzz arrest of Generals Mario Acosta Chaparro and Francisco Quirós Hermosillo for “fostering drug trafficking” in the state of Guerrero. Both served 16 years and six months in a military prison.

When the “war on drug trafficking” was declared by President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) – whose drug-czar Genaro García Luna is now on trial — there were arrests of several division generals, namely Tomás Angeles Dauahare, Roberto Dawe González and Rubén Pérez Ramírez. Actually, García Luna took down this threesome for passing “confidential information” to the Beltrán Leyva Cartel brothers to avoid their detention. The accuser could not prove their guilt and they were released. Do I think that Garcia Luna and the DEA were bedfellows? You bet.

Last, but not least was the case of Cuernavaca garrison commander General Ricardo Escorcia, accused of protesting the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, who was accused by the DEA of allowing a King Air Learjet to land at the Cuernavaca airport. The drug kingpins were aboard but, in the end, the accusation, like so many others, fizzled. An embarrassed Escorcia requested a release  from the Army; request granted.

Clearly, this is not a complete list. My reporter’s notebooks (I’m old fashioned, I still jot notes on paper) are full of names of more Mexican Army officers involved in drug trafficking.

Yet the top story to date is none other than the arrest of General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, not just because of his superb military pedigree curriculum vitae and prestige.

The Cienfuegos arrest was no “mistake,” like that in Juan Arevalo Gardoqui in San Diego. This time, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico cannot come up with an “oops” excuse.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has earned the right to divulge first-hand all information regarding the DEA’s suit against Cienfuegos.

The DEA claims to have a case. We’ll see. But what is certain is that retired General Cienfuegos will be tried, unless, of course, he becomes a protected witness.

What is now grabbing everyone’s attention in Mexico is the lack of performance by the Foreign Relations Secretariat (SRE) in this case, other than offering legal aid to the suspect.

In fact, López Obrador said he heard about the arrest from Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Marta Bárcena Coqui two weeks before it happened. Thus far, following protocol, Secretary Marcelo Ebrard should have summoned U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau to explain the nature of the case. This, however, has yet to happen.

On the contrary, the López Obrador administration is now playing the usual Donald Trump game when it comes to the development of important matters: taking a “we’ll-see-what-happens” stance.

In the meantime, in the Mexican Army there are shivers of fear up many a military spine – include top generals – who were high in the chain of command under General Cienfuegos’s orders and are still field operators.

…Oct. 23, 2020


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