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Mexico’s former safety chief goes on trial in US drug case

NEW YORK (AP) — Shielded by anonymity and extra security, jurors got their first look Monday at a rare U.S. trial of a former cabinet-level Mexican official charged with taking bribes to aid drug traffickers he was supposed to be neutralizing.

After blowing a kiss to his wife and daughters in the courtroom gallery, Genaro García Luna, who once was Mexico’s top security official, watched with little outward reaction as opening statements began. His case folds in Mexico’s politics, its vast and violent drug trade, uncomfortable connections between the two, and delicate U.S.-Mexico relations about fighting drugs and corruption.

García Luna is accused of accepting briefcases full of cash — millions of dollars, in all — to let the notorious Sinaloa cartel operate with impunity as it sent tons of cocaine to the U.S.

“The person who’s supposed to be in charge of fighting the Sinaloa cartel was actually its most valued asset … and with his help, the cartel made millions,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Pilmar told jurors. He called García Luna “a man who betrayed both countries — his and ours.”

He said that while García Luna portrayed himself to both countries as a drug enforcement hero, he saw to it that the cartel got information on investigations, smooth passage for its cocaine through police checkpoints and police escorts, and sometimes even badges for cartel members. Officers hand-delivered drug shipments from airports and acted as mercenaries to kill people the cartels wanted gone, Pilmar said.

García Luna has said it is “false, defamatory and perjury to say that I have ever received any material goods from any person, police officer or criminal group.”

His lead lawyer, César de Castro, told jurors that the government’s case rested on “rumors, speculation and the words of some of the biggest criminals in the world” — cartel members set to testify against him.

“No money, no photos, no video, no texts, no emails, no recordings, no documents — no credible, believable evidence that Genaro García Luna helped the cartel,” the lawyer said in his opening statement. He described the case as “a very public and angry display” by a U.S. government that is forsaking a onetime drug-fighting partner.

De Castro argued that the cartel members who are set to take the stand, after pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate with the government, are just trying to lessen their sentences and exact revenge on a government official they see as responsible for their apprehension.

“Don’t let the cartels play you,” he told jurors.

García Luna led Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency from 2001 to 2005, then served as secretary of public security to then-President Felipe Calderon from 2006 to 2012.

As public safety chief, García Luna was seen as the point man in Calderon’s bloody war on cartels and as a key ally in a U.S. initiative that started in former President George W. Bush’s administration and provided Mexico’s police with equipment, technology and training to try to stanch the flow of drugs across the border. Photos shown in court depict García Luna with former U.S. President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Sen. John McCain and other high-ranking officials.

But García Luna also was dogged for years by allegations that he had ties to drug traffickers.

Then, during former Sinaloa kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s trial in New York, a former cartel member testified in 2018 that he personally delivered at least $6 million in payoffs to García Luna, and that cartel members had agreed to pool up to $50 million to bribe him.

García Luna, who moved to Miami after leaving his government post, was arrested in 2019 in Texas and has since been held without bail in a federal lockup. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of drug trafficking and engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise. The 54-year-old could face decades in prison if convicted.

Current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist, has welcomed the trial, which could spotlight corruption on a conservative predecessor’s watch. He also has pointedly suggested that Washington investigate its own law enforcement officials who worked with García Luna.

Mexico has said in the past that its officials should be tried at home if accused of corruption. The U.S. was asked in 2020 to extradite García Luna to face charges of illegal enrichment, but the Mexican government hasn’t exerted the same pressure as it did to truncate a U.S. prosecution of a former Mexican defense secretary accused of taking bribes to protect the H-2 cartel. He was returned to Mexico in 2020 and quickly cleared. At the time, the foreign secretary cast García Luna’s case in a different light, noting that he had been living in the U.S.

García Luna is being tried in the same Brooklyn federal courthouse where Guzman was convicted of running a sprawling international drug-smuggling operation for decades.

Like Guzman, García Luna is facing jurors whose names are kept secret. They also are escorted to and from the courthouse by deputy U.S. marshals and sequestered from the public while inside.

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