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Ex-Mexican Military Head Arrested in U.S. on Drug Charges. Should He Be Tried for Massacres, Too?

StoryOctober 21, 2020
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Image Credit: Mona Edwards

We speak with legendary Mexican investigative journalist Anabel Hernández about a case that has sent shockwaves throughout Mexico: the U.S. arrest of Mexico’s former defense secretary for allegedly working with a major drug cartel while heading Mexico’s military. General Salvador Cienfuegos served as secretary of defense from 2012 to 2018 in the former government of President Enrique Peña Nieto and has long been accused of human rights abuses, including refusing to allow investigators to interview soldiers who may have been involved in the 2014 disappearance and likely massacre of 43 students from a teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. Hernández’s book “Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers” links top Mexican government officials to the world’s most powerful drug cartels, and she has received so many death threats that the National Human Rights Commission assigned her two full-time bodyguards. Despite the danger, she has continued to report. We are also joined by John Gibler, author and independent journalist based in Mexico, and examine how Mexican soldiers were involved in the 2014 disappearance and apparent massacre of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we spend the rest of the hour looking at Mexico, as former Defense Secretary General Salvador Cienfuegos has been indicted in New York on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to distribute drugs in the U.S. from 2015 to 2017. General Cienfuegos is accused of working with the Beltrán Leyva Cartel to arrest and torture rivals in exchange for bribes. On Tuesday, a judge ordered Cienfuegos to be held in U.S. custody without bail, saying he is a flight risk. The judge also ordered the former defense secretary be sent to New York from Los Angeles, where he was arrested at L.A. International Airport last Thursday.

Cienfuegos served as defense secretary from 2012 to 2018 under Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. On Monday, the current Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said he would ask the U.S. to share all information about ties between the former defense secretary and cartels.

General Salvador Cienfuegos has long been accused of human rights abuses in Mexico, including refusing to allow investigators to interview soldiers who may have been involved in the 2014 disappearance and likely massacre of 43 students from a teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, Mexico. Cienfuegos also defended soldiers who were accused of massacring nearly two dozen people in the town of Tlatlaya in the state of Mexico in 2014.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Anabel Hernández is with us. She’s been described as one of the most courageous journalists in Mexico. In 2010, she published the groundbreaking book Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers, linking top Mexican governmental officials to the world’s most powerful drug cartels. She received so many death threats that the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico assigned her two full-time bodyguards. Despite the danger, she has continued to report. Her most recent book, Traitor: The Secret Diary of Mayo’s Son, about the son of one of the most powerful Mexican drug lords, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Also with us, John Gibler, author and independent journalist based in Mexico. His book on the 2014 attacks against the Ayotzinapa students is called I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us. He’s the author of To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War and, more recently, Torn from the World: A Guerrilla’s Escape from a Secret Prison in Mexico.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Anabel Hernández, we’ll just say that you are somewhere in Europe right now. I mean, you face so much enormous personal threat for your work on exposing drug cartels in Mexico. Can you talk about the significance of the arrest of the former defense secretary of Mexico, Cienfuegos?

ANABEL HERNÁNDEZ: Good morning, Amy. Nice to hear you.

Well, I really — what I can see is that the arrest of this general is not a case insulated. You have to see all the piece of all the picture. In this court was processed Joaquín Guzmán Loera, called “El Chapo,” one of the heads of the Sinaloa Cartel, in 2008 — 2018, 2019. He was sentenced to life in prison. Then, this court, the same Attorney General’s Office, ordered the arrest of Genaro García Luna, another former secretary of security, public security, in Mexico in the period of the government of Felipe Calderón. And now you have this third very important arrest of the general.

So, if you see the picture, you can see like a maximum process against the corruption and the penetration of the drug traffickers inside the government. That’s what I see, a maximum process that hasn’t had an end yet. I think that now that Richard Donoghue and Michael Robotti, the two attorney generals head on these three cases, has a bigger picture about, really, how penetrated was the Mexican government in the last 18 years by the cartels. What I revealed in my book in 2010, Narcoland — and you know the story, all the threats that I have, I received because I revealed this — that now is in this court, in this historic moment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Anabel Hernández, I wanted to ask you — you mentioned Genaro García Luna, who not only was a top official under Felipe Calderón in terms of fighting drugs, but also was a top law enforcement official under the previous president, Vicente Fox. These are people who the United States drug authorities, enforcement authorities, worked closely with over the years. What does it say about the ability of the United States in terms of dealing with combating drugs in Mexico that these top officials worked closely with them, and now we’re finding out they were a part of the problem?

ANABEL HERNÁNDEZ: For me, it’s really a controversial question, for the U.S. government, of course, for the DEA, for the Department of Justice: How didn’t get — how they didn’t understand that these people were working for the drug cartels?

I mean, the story of Genaro García Luna with the cartel, with the Sinaloa Cartel, in complicity with the Sinaloa Cartel and los Beltrán Leyva brothers, and the complicity also of Cienfuegos — Cienfuegos just doesn’t start to do this in between 2015 and 2017. He started to protect the Sinaloa Cartel and the Beltrán Leyva brothers, according — according with documents that I have, according with formal depositions of members of these cartels in front of the Attorney General Office in Mexico in 2010, in 2011. According with these depositions, General Cienfuegos was also protecting to Sinaloa Cartel and Beltrán Leyva brothers since 2005, also the government of Vicente Fox, when Cienfuegos was the head of the Army in that region, in Guerrero, and then in Mexico City, when these two parts were absolutely under control of the Sinaloa Cartel and Beltrán Leyva brothers.

So, yes, the question is: If I, as a journalist, were able to discover on time that these two men, head of the government, were involved with the cartels, what happened with the DEA? What happened with the other agencies that works in Mexico? They didn’t saw it? They let them work? What happened? I think it’s a question that until now is not a clear answer.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and I think we have John Gibler also on with us, an independent journalist. I’m wondering if you could talk about the role of former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos in terms of the massacre of Ayotzinapa and his legacy there?

JOHN GIBLER: Of course. Hi, Amy, Juan and Anabel. I hope everyone’s doing well, everyone listening to us, as well.

Salvador Cienfuegos was, of course, the secretary of defense during the Peña Nieto administration, 2012 to 2018, and, as such, was chief of the Army and chief of the so-called drug war during those years, when several major massacres happened across Mexico. You mentioned the murder of 22 people in Tlatlaya, Mexico state, at the hands of Army soldiers, as well as the murder of six people and the forced disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa in late September 2014.

Salvador Cienfuegos, like the other high-level federal officials, initially dismissed the importance of those events, immediately dissuaded any analysis of state participation, of military participation in those events, but also, much later, when the family members of the disappeared, first, and then, second, the human rights organizations and the independent international experts that arrived in Mexico also to assist the families in the investigation, requested officially the ability to interview soldiers stationed in Iguala, Mexico, where most of the attacks took place on the night of September 26, 27, to just interview them about what happened, where they were, everything that happened that night, Salvador Cienfuegos himself, the head of the military, repeatedly refused to allow the families or their legal representatives and the independent experts access to the soldiers to interview them. Not only did he refuse that, but he went so far as to say that even talking to those soldiers would be criminalizing them.

So, now you have here a person, who’s being charged in New York of three counts of international drug trafficking and one count of money laundering, refusing to let parents looking, desperately looking, for their children, forcibly disappeared by police in an operation carried out over hours a mile and a half away from a major military base — refusing to let them speak to the soldiers — just speak to them — saying that that, in and of itself, would criminalize the soldiers.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion and also talk about another massacre, as well as what it means — in the United States, billions have gone to the “drug war” and have gone to the Mexican government. Who has pocketed that money? How many of them are now under arrest for drug trafficking themselves? Anabel Hernández and John Gibler are our guests. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Ayotzinapa” by Verónica Valerio. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we talk about the latest news. We’re looking at Mexico, where last month authorities brought criminal charges against military soldiers for the first time in the ongoing investigation into the 2014 disappearance and likely massacre of 43 students from a teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, Mexico, Mexican officials announcing they had issued at least 25 arrest warrants against suspects believed to be the, quote, “material and intellectual authors of the disappearance,” including a former head of the federal police. Also, this past week, the former defense secretary of Mexico was arrested in Los Angeles airport.

So, we want to turn to families of the disappeared students who have long maintained the military was involved in the mass abduction. This is Clemente Rodríguez Moreno, the father of missing student Christian Alfonso Rodríguez.

CLEMENTE RODRÍGUEZ MORENO: [translated] The previous government, led by Peña Nieto, said, “My little soldiers are untouchable.” Colonel Cienfuegos said it: “No one can touch my troops.” With this new government, we’ve managed to enter the military barracks, the 27th military barracks in Iguala. With this government, we’ve managed to do something we couldn’t before — for example, the arrest of police officers.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we continue with our two guests, journalists John Gibler and Anabel Hernández. Anabel, if you could talk further about the human rights abuses in Mexico, the U.S. money that went into the so-called drug war — millions, if not billions, of dollars — and not only the Ayotzinapa massacre of 2014, but, as well, another massacre that took place where 22 people were killed in the town of Tlatlaya in Mexico?


AMY GOODMAN: And if you can relate this to the general who was just arrested?

ANABEL HERNÁNDEZ: Absolutely. As you remember, since the Plan Mérida was signed between the U.S. government and Mexican government on 2008, 2009, the cooperation, the collaboration between the U.S. government and Mexico were stronger, supposedly, against the cartels. Now you see that part of the government was part of the cartels. But that was the story that they told to us.

Then, of course, the general, Cienfuegos, as I told you, has been always inside this system. He was a member of one very strong group in the defense secretary. Then, when Enrique Peña Nieto decided that Salvador Cienfuegos be the defense secretary, all this politics, all these decisions about the “war against drugs” cross under the order of Cienfuegos. So he was a key, a key part of this “war against drugs” in the government of Enrique Peña Nieto.

So, with the pretext of this war — fake, as we can see very clearly — the Army abuse of their power. They disappear many, many, many people, hundreds of people in Mexico, since all this part of the time. I mean, since 2008 from 2020, we have been seeing how the Army participate in massacres, disappear people, abuses of power, abuse of human rights and all these things.

So, with the pretext of the “war against drugs,” in one place of Mexico called Estado de México, on July of 2014, the Army massacre, kill to 21 people, just like that. The official version was that supposedly was a combat between these supposed members of the cartel and the Army, and all the members of the cartel were murdered. Just two days before the attack and the disappearance of the students in Iguala, just two days before, the Army, General Cienfuegos have to confess, “Yes, yes, we killed to that people. We’re not a combat. We killed them,” and start to be very uncomfortable for the government of Enrique Peña Nieto and for Cienfuegos in face this crime in Tlatlaya.

Then, what happened in Iguala, when these students were attacked by the Federal Police, by the Army, by the local police, the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, instead of reveal the truth about the case, instead investigate to the Army, to the members of the Army that participate, they cover up the crime. They create a fake story about what really happened that night. And that’s why this one — this is one of the reasons why, until now, these parents cannot hug again to their boys, to their children.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask John Gibler: John, could you talk about what President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has done since coming in office? He promised there would be no more impunity among — with the military. Just last month, Mexican authorities arrested — issued dozens of arrest warrants for police and soldiers connected to the Ayotzinapa massacre or disappearances of the students. How has López Obrador dealt with this situation?

JOHN GIBLER: Well, López Obrador made a very explicit commitment to the families, actually, when he was still campaigning. The families confronted him during a campaign event in Iguala, Guerrero, and he made, at that point, a very explicit commitment to investigate the case, to find their children, to find the truth of what happened that night and to do justice. And when he was elected, he reiterated his commitment. He formed a presidential commission to investigate the case. And then, later, many months later, they named a special prosecutor, who is someone who had actually worked with the independent experts earlier during the Peña Nieto administration, so someone who is intimately familiar with the details of the case.

Since then, many of the family members have said to me that they — while they believe in the commitment that the president has made, they feel, inevitably, the anguish of how long it’s taking.

But the new government has issued arrest warrants for several federal officials, including Tomás Zerón de Lucio, who was the former police official supposedly in charge of investigating the attacks against the students, but who was one of the chief architects of the lie, the version that the government insisted on for several years, that the students had been confused for a rival cartel and taken out to this open-air, outdoor trash dump near a town of Cocula and incinerated there during a rainstorm over the course of a single night. Of course, that story was based on confessions that were extracted through torture. Several videos of those torture sessions have since come out, so it’s become absolutely impossible to sustain the veracity of those confessions.

But one thing that is important, that the new government is very clearly distancing itself from this previous administration’s cover-ups or acts of administrative forced disappearance of the students for so many years. And, in fact, the president, López Obrador, I think, for the first time, explicitly said that the attacks against the students had been a crime of state. The president articulated what had been for years the call of the families and of protesters in the street: ”¡Fue el Estado!” It was the state. It was a crime of state.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, we just have 30 seconds, John, but how would you relate the U.S. funding of the “drug war” to the mass migration of Mexicans into the United States?

JOHN GIBLER: Very quickly, I mean, I think U.S. “drug war” has and always been a racist and neoimperialist tool. It’s never been about controlling substances that are dangerous for communities. And the arrest of Cienfuegos is just one more example of how the highest-level federal officials in charge of supposedly policing the drug industry are the ones actually administering it. This goes back all the way to the ’90s with General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, Noé Ramírez Mandujano in the Calderón administration, of course García Luna and now Cienfuegos. The United States is obsessed with controlling and perpetuating this “drug war,” which wreaks terror on communities, connecting it to migration. I was in the Central Valley of California —

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

JOHN GIBLER: Migrants that are fleeing situations of terror that are provoked by the U.S. “drug war.”

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, John Gibler and Anabel Hernández. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Wear a mask. Vote.

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