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Opinion The trial of Mexico’s former security chief is about more than drugs

The-then director of Mexico's Federal Police, Genaro Garcia Luna (left), and then-President Felipe Calderon talk in Mexico City in 2012. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, inside the same federal courthouse in Brooklyn where infamous drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was sentenced to life in prison in 2019, another high-profile figure in Mexico’s violent drug war was brought to trial.

But not just any figure.

Between 2006 and 2012, as head of Mexico’s powerful security ministry, Genaro García Luna almost single-handedly led the strategy against the country’s cartels. Chosen by then-President Felipe Calderón to rein in organized crime and re-engineer policing in Mexico, García Luna enjoyed universal influence. He ran Mexico’s Federal Police with an iron fist, often monopolizing access to intelligence and operations. “To avoid corruption, he compartmentalized information. He didn’t want anyone to have the full picture of what was going on,” journalist Julian Andrade told me. “The only problem, of course, was that the only person who knew everything was García Luna himself.”

García Luna’s trial has broad implications for Mexico’s politics. He is the highest-ranking Mexican official ever to stand trial in an U.S. court of law — and his potential conviction would illuminate the extent to which Mexican leaders are complicit with organized crime. If the prosecution succeeds, the process might also lead to disclosures that could shake up Mexican politics and the model of the war on drugs. As the man who chose to elevate and protect García Luna, Calderón will face uncomfortable questions about his own involvement – a prospect that is likely to delight his longtime rival, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

When García Luna was at the height of his powers, few could have imagined that he might ever face a predicament like the one that confronts him now. “He was very commanding, and always in control. The press was afraid of him,” journalist Peniley Ramírez, who profiled Garcia Luna for the podcast “USA v. Garcia Luna,” told me. She describes a man of boundless narcissism. “He was obsessed with James Bond and saw himself as a hero,” Ramírez says. Julian Andrade remembers a “careful, intelligent and well-prepared” man who became the face of “thousands” of Mexican policemen who followed him religiously. His authority went beyond Mexican borders. According to Ramírez, García Luna “was a very important ally for the FBI and received extremely confidential material on a regular basis.”

U.S. authorities arrested García Luna in Texas in 2019. He now faces a long list of charges, including taking millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for supporting Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel and its massive drug trafficking operation. Ultimately, the prosecution alleges, he helped the organization smuggle more than 50 tons of cocaine into the United States. “García Luna betrayed those he was sworn to protect,” Seth D. DuCharme, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said, announcing the indictment.

What the trial will reveal is a matter of intense speculation. “It could turn out to be rather anticlimactic,” Mexican national security expert Alejandro Hope told me. “The case will likely depend on statements from collaborating witnesses (many of them drug traffickers) that have already been made public.” During the El Chapo trial, Jesús “El Rey” Zambada, a prominent member of the Sinaloa cartel, revealed that Garcia Luna had taken millions in bribes hidden in suitcases to prevent security forces from intervening in the cartel’s operations. Whether others will corroborate the extent and reach of Garcia Luna’s corruption remains to be seen. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The trial may shed light on public officials tainted by collusion with the cartels, both in Mexico and the United States — beginning with the national security apparatus García Luna led and the partnerships he built in Mexico and abroad during the Calderón administration. “The Mexican police itself will be on trial,” Andrade told me. “García Luna’s imprint can be seen in a whole system of policing and security that spans several generations.”

This could lead all the way to the top, to the man who chose to elevate and protect García Luna despite suspicions of misconduct: former president Calderón. “Why did Calderón stand by García Luna?” Ramírez asked. “Was it because he was merely stubborn? Because he wanted to trust him? Maybe he owed García Luna something or perhaps received money himself. That’s what we could find out.”

If Calderón’s legacy is ruined and his honesty put into question, the current government of Mexico would celebrate his downfall. López Obrador has always seen Calderón, who defeated him by a narrow margin in 2006 (in an election López Obrador has called fraudulent), as his main political adversary. Calderón’s disgrace would almost certainly give López Obrador a lift — right as he’s gearing up to cement his party’s hold on power in the 2024 presidential campaign.

For all its political sensitivity, however, the García Luna trial has the potential to provide a broader service to the Mexican public. It could bring Mexico closer to the resolution of a conflict that has lasted nearly two decades. Confirming the rottenness of the security structure that began the war on the cartels could spur a debate over the validity of a struggle that has cost the country hundreds of thousands of lives. That examination could lead to complicated conclusions, but it would still be preferable to deceit and corruption. For Mexico, it would be a welcome change.