Mexican ex-lawyer took money from cartels he sued, prosecutors say

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In the early 2000s, a senior Sinaloa drug cartel official said he intercepted a rival organization’s shipment of cocaine as it passed through the Mexican state of Chiapas.

After the drugs were taken to a warehouse, the member testified on Monday, one of the cartel bosses showed up with an unexpected guest: Genaro García Luna, who was then in charge of the Mexican equivalent of the FBI.

An agreement had been reached, according to cartel member Sergio Villarreal Barragán. The cartel would take half of the profits from the sale of the two-ton load. Mr. García Luna, he said, would receive the other half, or more than $14 million.

The story of the warehouse deal came on the first day of Mr. García Luna’s corruption trial in federal district court in Brooklyn. In dueling opening statements, the government and defense offered starkly different descriptions of the defendant.

Prosecutors said that for more than a decade Mr. García Luna led a double life, taking millions of dollars in bribes to protect the traffickers he was supposed to prosecute.

But his lawyers countered those arguments. They said that Mr. García Luna, who once headed the Mexican version of the FBI, was in fact what he always claimed to be: an honest lawman who had helped the United States arrest figures of the cartel of the Sinaloa drug. Those same criminals, the lawyers said, had now returned to exact revenge on him as government witnesses.

The trial, which could last up to eight weeks, will present the jury with a stark choice: Was Mr. García Luna, the highest-ranking Mexican official to ever stand trial in a US court for drug trafficking, was he a scourge of the Sinaloa Cartel or Secret Servant?

Along the way, the proceedings will take jurors on a tour of the dizzying Hall of Mirrors that often exists in the halls of power in Mexico.

Philip Pilmar, a federal prosecutor, opened the government’s case by setting out the defendant’s professional biography.

He told the jury that García Luna entered public service in 1989 working for CISEN, a newly created intelligence agency in Mexico. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Federal Investigation Agency. Then, under former President Felipe Calderon, he was named Mexico’s secretary of public security, an important cabinet-level position he held until 2012.

But all the while Mr. García Luna, who is accused of being part of an ongoing criminal enterprise, betrayed his colleagues and his country, Mr. Pilmar said.

“While he was in charge of working for the Mexican people, he also had a second job, a dirtier job, a more profitable job,” Mr. Pilmar said. That job, he continued, was to protect the Sinaloa Cartel’s vast shipments of cocaine and other drugs as they crossed the border to American consumers.

In his own opening statement, César de Castro, Mr. García Luna’s lead attorney, told the jury that, despite his claims, the government had no definitive proof of his client’s guilt and that the case of the The accusation would rest almost exclusively on witnesses from inside the cartel itself. Many of these witnesses were men Mr. García Luna had helped arrest in Mexico and extradite to the United States, providing them with a motive to testify against him.

“What better revenge,” Mr. de Castro said, “than to bury the man who waged war against the cartels.”

Mr. de Castro also pointed out that throughout his long career, Mr. García Luna has worked closely with a who’s who among senior US officials in the Departments of State and Justice, as well as in Congress and to the White House.

To that end, he showed the jury a series of photos of his client posing with Eric Holder, a former attorney general, and Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state; and shake hands with President Barack Obama.

After opening statements, the government called Mr. Villarreal Barragán, a former policeman who switched sides in the war on drugs and went to work for the Sinaloa cartel around 2001.

A towering man known as “El Grande”, Mr. Villarreal Barragán told the jury that he was present when his boss, a cartel boss named Arturo Beltrán Leyva, paid bribes to Mr. García Luna – at a given time, on a monthly basis. .

Although he never cited a specific amount, Mr. Villarreal Barragán said the money given to Mr. García Luna had helped cartel traffickers expand their operations from their home state of Sinaloa to many large swathes of the rest of Mexico.

“Payments increased as the cartel grew,” Mr. Villarreal Barragán said, “and without that support it would have been virtually impossible.”