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Arrest Of Genaro Garcia Luna Shocks Mexico


This past week, there was big news regarding corruption in Mexico's long-running war against the country's drug cartels. The FBI arrested Mexico's former secretary of public security, Genaro Garcia Luna, for allegedly taking millions of dollars in bribes from the notorious drug lord Joaquin El Chapo Guzman.

The news resonated around Mexico and here at NPR. Nine years ago, we aired an investigative report that said that the Mexican government was favoring El Chapo's Sinaloa Cartel. The reporter on that story was NPR's John Burnett, and he is with us now from the Texas-Mexico border.

John, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: So how big of a deal was the arrest of Garcia Luna, the Mexican official?

BURNETT: Well, he was the top anti-narcotics cop in Mexico. Garcia Luna was the face of that country's war against the cartels 10 years ago. Michel, imagine the head of the DEA getting arrested for taking millions of dollars from the nation's richest opioid and meth traffickers.

What producer Marisa Penaloza and I reported on was the widespread belief that the government of then-President Felipe Calderon was waging a rigged fight. It's taken nearly a decade, but now the U.S. Justice Department says they have evidence of this. Quote, "in exchange for multi-million-dollar bribes, the defendant allegedly permitted the Sinaloa Cartel to operate with impunity in Mexico.

MARTIN: What did you and Marisa find back then?

BURNETT: Well, we reported extensively in Mexico City and in Juarez, where the Sinaloans were battling for dominance against a rival mafia. And it was an open secret. Everyone was talking about the favoritism toward the Sinaloans - journalists, opposition politicians, security experts. And we even talked to some loose-lipped Mexican policemen.

What we did was analyze more than 2,600 press releases from the Mexican federal attorney general's office on the arrests of drug traffickers, and it turned out only a small proportion of those arrests had targeted Chapo's cartel, which was the largest and richest of them all. We talked to Manuel Clouthier, an outspoken congressman from the conservative PAN party.


MANUEL CLOUTHIER: (Through interpreter) The Calderon government has been fighting organized crime in many parts of this country but has not touched Sinaloa. I know this. I'm Sinaloan. My family lives in Sinaloa. It's like we're trimming the branches of a tree when we should be tearing it out by the roots.

BURNETT: So there were unproven reports around town that Garcia Luna was on the take. Marisa asked for an interview, but his office would never talk to us.

MARTIN: So what happened when your story aired?

BURNETT: Well, I can tell you the findings were widely repeated in the Mexican media. Mexican officials came out and denounced the story and insisted they were hitting every crime syndicate equally hard. Officials with the Obama administration were tight-lipped. At the time, the White House was a partner to President Calderon and his drug war. They were giving him $1.3 billion in military and judicial aid.

MARTIN: So what happened to finally break the case? It's - as you said, this was an open secret.

BURNETT: Right. Well, Chapo was put on trial earlier this year in New York. He got a life sentence. And there was explosive testimony in that trial. For instance, an associate said he personally delivered briefcases full of millions of dollars to Garcia Luna. And until his arrest last week, Garcia Luna had been living in South Florida in a posh $3 million mansion. I should add he's been indicted by a federal grand jury. He has yet to enter a plea.

MARTIN: What's the reaction been to the news of Garcia Luna's arrest?

BURNETT: Well, in Mexico, the narco-related violence has spiked this year, and people are scared, and they're angry. And now they've learned that their country's top crime-fighter was allegedly working for the cartels for 17 years. They're furious, and now there are calls for ex-President Calderon to face justice. I remember what a veteran investigative journalist, Jorge Carrasco, told us. He said, a cartel cannot flourish at their level - referring to the Sinaloans - without civil and military protection at the highest levels.

MARTIN: To that point, John, can I just ask you this, though? I mean, it does seem remarkable that a person who was supposed to be a government official, you know, was obviously displaying a lot of wealth and had a lifestyle that was just not compatible with his government salary. So I guess the question remains - like, why did it take so long?

BURNETT: Well, it wasn't until he moved to Miami, and the FBI started poking around and trying to put it all together - that he had a lifestyle vastly out of balance with his government salary in Mexico. And then the testimony came out at Chapo's trial, and it all fell together.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, what's the time frame of this? What's the next step in this?

BURNETT: Well, Garcia Luna - he'll have to issue a plea, and then he'll prepare for a defense so that he won't spend the rest of his life in prison. But right now, Mexicans are enraged, and they're calling for Calderon's head. They want him to be judged. But why did the president, who said he was throwing everything he could at the cartels - actually, one hand was tied behind his back because his chief security minister was allegedly on their payroll?

MARTIN: That is NPR's John Burnett.

John, thank you.

BURNETT: You bet, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.