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Former Mexican Defense Secretary Arrested In The U.S. On Drug-Trafficking Charges

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A former defense secretary of Mexico is under arrest in the United States. He was taken into custody yesterday at Los Angeles International Airport and is now facing charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the arrest is the latest sign of corruption at the highest levels of Mexico's power elite.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: To say the arrest of Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda came as a shock is an understatement. The 72-year-old general recently retired after a long career in the Mexican army. His last post was defense secretary under former President Enrique Pena Nieto. Mexicans may have been surprised by the arrest, but President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said this morning he wasn't.

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PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The main problem in Mexico is corruption, said Lopez Obrador. He said it's regrettable that someone so high up in the Mexican government is accused of ties to drug traffickers, and he said this is not a one-time crisis.

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LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: This is a process of progressive degradation, and we're trying now to figure out how deep the corruption goes, said the president. Lopez Obrador was elected in a landslide two years ago on promises of cleaning up government. Cienfuegos, the man detained in LA, is the highest-ranking Mexican official ever arrested on drug trafficking charges and the second detained by U.S. authorities in recent months. Last year U.S. officials arrested the head of public security under former President Felipe Calderon and charged him with drug trafficking. Calderon put Mexico's military at the forefront of the country's crackdown on cartels more than a decade ago. That role for the military continued into the next administration with former Defense Secretary Cienfuegos at the helm.

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SALVADOR CIENFUEGOS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: At this military ceremony back in 2017, Cienfuegos said he was there to serve the public without question, lies or tricks. But according to the U.S. indictment unsealed today in the Eastern District of New York, the retired general, nicknamed The Godfather, was working on behalf of one of the country's deadliest cartels, known as the H2, part of the Beltran Leyva trafficking organization. Authorities alleged Cienfuegos took bribes to protect the cartel and its leaders. He informed them of pending military actions against them and even had troops launch operations against a rival cartel.

RAUL BENITEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Raul Benitez, a military analyst at Mexico's National Autonomous University, says Cienfuegos' arrest will shake up Mexico's leaders, who must reconsider whether the military should remain at the forefront in the fight against drug trafficking. Despite promises during his campaign for the presidency, Lopez Obrador has, in fact, expanded the role of the military, having it run the country's ports and build vital infrastructure projects.

BENITEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Benitez says that's problematic since there still are not controls in place to monitor high-ranking officials in Mexico. Today President Lopez Obrador says he continues to have full confidence in his military, including the heads of the army and navy who served under Cienfuegos. Lopez Obrador says he is sure the two are incorruptible. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAMATIK'S "MUY TRANQUILO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.