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A New York courtroom opens a window into the corruption behind the War on Drugs

Mexican leaders have been extremely reluctant to extradite suspects to the United States, but trials of cartel-linked figures show the value of cooperation.

In this courtroom sketch, Genaro García Luna, Mexico's former secretary of public safety, seated lower left, with US Marshals behind him and defense team in foreground, attends trial, Jan. 23 in New York. On the screen is a photo of García Luna shaking hands with former president Barack Obama. An anonymous jury has gotten its first look at a rare US trial of a former Cabinet-level Mexican official charged with taking bribes to aid drug traffickers he was supposed to be neutralizing.Elizabeth Williams/Associated Press

Sound familiar? A top police official is accused of secretly conspiring with the gangsters he’s supposed to hunt down, taking bribes and helping them stay one step ahead of the law.

The official in this case is Genaro García Luna, who ran the Mexican analogue of the FBI in the early 2000s before being named the country’s secretary of public security in 2006.

Like the crooked FBI agents in Boston who worked for James “Whitey” Bulger, García Luna is alleged to have taken bribes from brutal crooks and fed them information about both underworld rivals and law enforcement. He is now on trial in New York City for drug trafficking conspiracy.


García Luna — who left his post in 2012 and was arrested in Dallas in late 2019 — allegedly took millions from the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel and its then ally, the Beltrán Leyva cartel, so the criminal organizations could traffic tons of cocaine into the United States.

García Luna is on trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, the same court where another high-profile trial unfolded a couple of years ago. Drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Sinaloa cartel leader, was convicted in 2019 of 10 criminal counts, including narcotics trafficking and money laundering conspiracy, after a three-month trial. Guzmán was sentenced to life in prison by US District Judge Brian M. Cogan, the same judge now presiding over García Luna’s trial.

Here’s the kicker: It was during El Chapo’s trial that García Luna’s double life was revealed. In a bombshell delivered from the witness stand, Jesús “El Rey” Zambada, a senior member of the Sinaloa cartel, testified that García Luna had taken tens of millions of dollars in bribes from the cartels. It was then that prosecutors from the Eastern District of New York reportedly began building the case against the former Mexican official, who had a personal fortune that was “inconsistent” with the salary of a government official in Mexico, they said. García Luna, 54, has denied committing any crimes.


García Luna’s trial has significant implications. As Mexico’s top law enforcement official, he held enormous power overseeing the country’s intelligence-gathering network and running its federal police and its prisons. He worked closely with the architects of the US side of the war on drugs, namely, US anti-narcotic and intelligence agencies. García Luna, who apparently was obsessed with James Bond, held high-level meetings with the likes of former attorney general Eric Holder and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

During opening statements in García Luna’s trial last week, his defense attorney, César de Castro, said the evidence against him was thin and suggested that many of the witnesses who will allegedly testify against García Luna are former cartel members who cut deals with prosecutors and are acting out of revenge since García Luna helped arrest them in Mexico.

Fundamentally, the high-profile trial is hugely embarrassing for the Mexican government. But it could also implicate the US government. Some observers have speculated that García Luna may have key insider information that could expose and incriminate top government officials on both sides of the border. It’s possible that, during the trial, other corrupt Mexican and American authorities will be named, just like García Luna was during El Chapo’s trial.


García Luna’s indictment also shed light on an important flaw of the deadly war on drugs in Mexico, which for more than a decade has been supported by US funds and equipment and left hundreds of thousands dead. Since 2007, the US government has spent more than $3 billion to help Mexico fight the war on drug trafficking. Authorities have almost solely focused on arresting senior drug lords to try to stop the cartels. To be sure, that is a logical strategy. But the United States ought to expand those efforts to target narco-corruption. Cartels have deeply penetrated the Mexican political class, bribing elected officials and law enforcement officers in exchange for protection.

To tackle that pernicious dynamic, García Luna trial’s offers a simple lesson: It vindicates the extradition of Mexican drug lords to the United States, a process that has typically been slow and unreasonably cumbersome. That’s because, historically, Mexico has been extremely reluctant to extradite drug lords, claiming they should serve their sentences in Mexico first. El Chapo was finally extradited to the United States in 2017 but not before twice escaping high-security Mexican prisons. Just earlier this month, Mexican security forces captured El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzmán, in a frightening gun battle in the state of Sinaloa that left 29 people dead.

It was a huge get because the 32-year-old Guzmán, a high-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel fraction called “Los Chapitos,” was a big player in the illegal production and trafficking of fentanyl, the dangerous synthetic opioid responsible for the majority of the estimated 110,000 American overdose deaths last year. And yet the day after his arrest, a Mexican federal judge halted his extradition, which the United States had immediately sought.


That’s a signal that it might be years before he actually faces justice in a US courtroom. The Mexican foreign minister said Guzmán needs to face Mexican criminal charges first. But as the El Chapo and García Luna trials have shown, extraditing suspects to the United States can be to the benefit of both countries.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.