MEXICO CITY - He was the stern-faced chief of Mexico's armed forces, leading the battle against the nation's powerful drug cartels.
In 2016, he denounced the traffickers who ambushed a military convoy, killing six soldiers, as "sick, insane beasts."
Former Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos - who served as Mexico's defense minister from 2012 to 2018 under ex-President Enrique Pena Nieto - was arrested late Thursday in Los Angeles.
In a Twitter message Friday morning, Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican foreign minister, said Cienfuegos faced five charges related to narcotics trafficking and would be transferred to New York.
As of early Friday, there was no official confirmation from U.S. authorities of any charges against Cienfuegos. U.S. and Mexican media reported that Cienfuegos was arrested at LAX on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warrant for drug-trafficking and money-laundering.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador - who confirmed that the ex-general was detained on suspicion of drug-trafficking - told reporters Friday morning that he had no official knowledge of the U.S. investigation until informed late Thursday of the arrest. There was no investigation of Cienfuegos in Mexico, Lopez Obrador said.
The Mexican ambassador in Washington informed him two weeks ago that there was talk of a U.S. inquiry into the former defense chief, Lopez Obrador added, but there had been no official notification.
The news stunned Mexico, where for many it served as the latest confirmation of the insidious nexus between a long-corrupt government and the criminal gangs that hold sway over much of the country.
"It is something very regrettable, that an ex-secretary of defense be arrested (and) accused of links to narco-trafficking," said Lopez Obrador, who was elected in a landslide vote in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform.
The arrest, the president said, was an example of the "decomposition" of government before he came to power. He said that the case did not taint the current military leadership, which he appointed, and that current military chiefs were honest public servants.