Former Mexican President Accused of Supporting Sinaloa Cartel

A former Mexican official convicted of drug trafficking testified in a New York court on Tuesday that he had been told that Felipe Calderón, the onetime president of Mexico, had instructed government officials to support the Sinaloa drug cartel as it battled its rivals.

The accusation was made by Edgar Veytia, the former attorney general from the state of Nayarit, who was himself sentenced in a Brooklyn federal court in 2019 to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking. Mr. Calderón was quick to denounce the allegation as ludicrous.

“I categorically deny the absurd statements reported by the press made today by the witness Veytia,” Mr. Calderón tweeted on Tuesday. “What you say about me is an absolute lie. I never negotiated or made a pact with criminals.”

Mr. Veytia’s claims came at the federal corruption trial of Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former top security official, who is facing charges in the same Brooklyn courthouse of taking millions of dollars in bribes from the cartel to help traffickers move huge shipments of narcotics into the United States. From 2006 to 2012, Mr. García Luna served in Mr. Calderón’s cabinet as the public security secretary, a powerful post in which he effectively ran the Mexican government’s war against drug cartels.

While dramatic and explosive, Mr. Veytia’s charge underscored some frailties in the prosecution’s case, which has been built so far almost exclusively on testimony from former drug traffickers and government officials — many serving sentences in their own corruption cases — with little other evidence to support it. His testimony about Mr. Calderón was a secondhand account about events he did not witness himself.

From the stand, Mr. Veytia told the jury that in 2011, his boss, the governor of the state of Nayarit, returned from a security conference in Mexico City with stunning news: that Mr. Calderón and Mr. García Luna had instructed him to support Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Sinaloa cartel leader best known as El Chapo, in a war against his rival, Arturo Beltrán Leyva.

“He had just gotten back from an important meeting with Calderón and García Luna,” Mr. Veytia said of the governor. Mr. Veytia added that the governor reported that Mr. Calderón and Mr. García Luna had told him “to protect Chapo’s people, not Beltrán Leyva’s.”

The civil war between Mr. Guzmán and Mr. Beltrán Leyva, which began around 2008, wracked Mexico with a spasm of violence, much of it committed against federal police officers and police officials who were loyal to either side. Throughout the trial, prosecutors have used the internecine fight as a way to show that in their constant search for an advantage, Mr. Guzmán and Mr. Beltrán Leyva struggled to control Mr. García Luna and the corps of federal officers who served under him.

Mexican news media outlets have been eagerly waiting since the trial began last month for the prosecution to implicate Mr. Calderón in corruption with his country’s drug cartels. But Mr. Veytia’s account on Tuesday was the first time in more than three weeks that an accusation against Mr. Calderón emerged during testimony.

Under cross-examination, Mr. Veytia acknowledged that he had met on multiple occasions with U.S. investigators before Mr. García Luna was arrested, but only offered information about him after Mr. García Luna was in American custody.

Mr. Veytia also testified that, hoping for a reduction in his sentence, he had provided U.S. authorities with information about other Mexican officials, including “the national secretary of defense” — an apparent reference to Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who was arrested in Los Angeles in late 2020 on bribery and drug trafficking charges. After pressure from Mexico, prosecutors from the same Brooklyn office that is trying Mr. García Luna dismissed the case, citing diplomatic concerns, and returned Mr. Cienfuegos to his homeland.

The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico has been quick to play up news from the trial to broadly paint Mr. Calderón’s term as rife with corruption. Speaking of Mr. García Luna’s trial on Tuesday morning, Mr. López Obrador lauded his government’s fight against corruption while blasting the country’s former presidents for “looting” the country.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Mexican government’s official Twitter account published a nearly five-minute video clip layered with dramatic music, narration and imagery to publicize the highlights of the trial so far, but did not mention the allegations from Tuesday about Mr. Calderón. The slickly produced clip featured photos of Mr. García Luna with Mexican and American officials intertwined with packages of seized drugs.

As the start of the trial loomed late last year, Mr. López Obrador began speaking regularly about the charges against Mr. García Luna while propping up his government as a counter to the graft that has plagued previous administrations.

“In our government there are no officials like García Luna, human rights violations are not permitted, the authorities are not accomplices,” the president said last November. There exists “no agreement with any organized crime group,” he said.

Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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