MEXICO CITY - From the outside, General Salvador Cienfuegos, with his stern visage, ramrod salute and beribboned chest, presented the image of a front-line warrior against drug traffickers.
As Mexico's defense chief from 2012 to 2018, he directed his forces to brutally corner cartel chiefs and stealthily move patrol vehicles in pursuit of heroin shipments. Under his watch, Mexican marines arrested infamous kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman twice in two years.
But Cienfuegos, who was arrested by U.S. officials as he landed at Los Angeles International Airport late Thursday, was, according to their indictment, wielding the vast power of his office and military not to interrupt drug traffic but to help a cartel known as H-2.
Prosecutors cite thousands of intercepted Blackberry messages to paint a picture of Cienfuegos, nicknamed "Padrino" or "Godfather," as an all-powerful benefactor who made sure thousands of kilograms of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and marijuana made their way into U.S. cities, producing millions of dollars in illicit cash.
"The defendant prioritized his personal greed over his sworn duties as a public servant, and he assured the continued success and safety of one of Mexico's most violent drug-trafficking organizations," the prosecutors wrote in a letter accompanying his indictment.
He not only smashed rival gangs, prosecutors say. He stopped military operations against H-2, introduced the cartel to "other corrupt Mexican government officials," arranged ships to move their supplies and helped them capture more territory. He warned H-2 when the U.S. was using witnesses to testify against them, leading to the murder of a cartel member, the documents say.
The cartel "committed countless acts of horrific violence, including torture and murder, in order to protect against challenges from rival drug-trafficking organizations, fight for territory and silence those who would cooperate with law enforcement," the letter says.
The indictment dates from August 2019. Cienfuegos, 72, hadn't set foot in the U.S. until now, when officials could nab him. It's unclear why he saw no risk in visiting. Prosecutors are asking that he be held without bail and tried in New York City where, if convicted, he could face decades in prison.
He made a brief appearance by video conference before a judge in Los Angeles Friday, speaking through a Spanish interpreter. Cienfuegos agreed to be held in a federal jail until a detention hearing Tuesday. His lawyer, Duane Lyons, said he will ask that his client be released on bail at that time. Lyons didn't respond to a request for comment after the hearing.
His arrest comes 10 months after the U.S. charged Mexico's top police official with protecting a different drug gang in the 2000s. The pair of indictments speaks to a mind-boggling level of corruption and intermingling of Mexican crime and law enforcement.