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Trial for Mexico's former top drug cop is underway over cartel bribery accusations

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In a Brooklyn federal court, prosecutors are wrapping up their case this week against a former Mexican government official. Genaro Garcia Luna, who once led Mexico's drug-fighting effort, is charged with taking millions of dollars in cash bribes from the drug cartels. This trial comes as the fentanyl crisis has sparked a wave of drug deaths and made the Mexican cartels a political flashpoint here in Washington.

NPR's Quil Lawrence has been covering that trial in New York. And our addiction correspondent, Brian Mann, has been reporting on efforts to fight fentanyl smuggling. And they both join us now. Quil, I want to start with you. Take us inside that courtroom. What was the prosecution's case?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Yeah. They're painting a picture of a fully integrated criminal enterprise between the Sinaloa drug cartel and the Mexican government with the help of senior figures like Genaro Garcia Luna, who was on trial. He was running Mexico's FBI equivalent. And then later, he was in the cabinet in charge of fighting drugs. And they say that this allowed murder, kidnapping and billions of dollars of drugs to be smuggled to the U.S. Cartel members were going on raids with the Mexican FBI to attack their rivals or sometimes to protect their leaders, let their leaders escape.

Today's star witness was Jesus Zambada Garcia, known as El Rey, The King, a Mexican narco. He cut a plea deal, and he was talking about personally packing duffel bags full of cash - millions of dollars to pay the defendant, Genaro Garcia Luna, and then watching him collect those duffel bags. And other cooperating witnesses say they met with Garcia Luna above a car wash or in a warehouse to do the same, to pay him off.

SUMMERS: OK. And so what does the defense have to say?

LAWRENCE: Well, they're responding essentially that this is all hearsay and that these witnesses are all themselves confessed narco traffickers who conspired to murder and torture Mexican civilians and other narco traffickers and members of the government. Honestly, there was just nobody terribly likable in there for the jury to admire in this case as far as I could tell. But there doesn't seem to be any hard evidence they've presented. There are no wiretaps or DA infiltrators. So the case is not feeling like a sure thing.

And if it collapses, it's a huge failure for U.S. prosecutors and, already, a strain on relations with the government of Mexico. Now, if the case goes through and they convict him, then the question is, how long did the United States government ignore the signs that the top - the very top levels of the Mexican government were involved in this narco trafficking?

SUMMERS: Brian Mann, I want to bring you in here. I mean, corruption and drug trafficking have been huge problems in Mexico for decades. So tell us, how does this trial fit into efforts to keep drugs out of the United States?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, as Quil suggests, there - this prosecution comes at a really bleak time for U.S.-Mexico cooperation on the drug war. And let me just broaden the picture a little bit. In 2019, the same year Garcia Luna was arrested, there was another key arrest. This is during the Trump years. Garcia Luna and a top Mexican official named Salvador Cienfuegos, who was actually Mexico's retired defense secretary, was arrested in Los Angeles. Cienfuegos was eventually released by the U.S., but this sparked a major diplomatic crisis. And Mexico basically halted all cooperation with American law enforcement.

What that means, Juana, is that the cartels now operate these drug labs in Mexico with almost complete impunity. Things have improved a bit during the Biden years, but a lot of Mexican leaders have either been corrupted by the cartels or think it's just too dangerous to take on these organizations, which, of course, are extremely powerful and violent.

SUMMERS: These Mexican cartels are doing a lot more harm now in the U.S. because of fentanyl trafficking. What are you seeing on the street?

MANN: Yeah, it's bad right now. The cartels decided the synthetic opioid fentanyl is cheap to make. It's easy to smuggle and super profitable. And frankly, they just don't care if it kills a lot more Americans. The wave of death the last three years has been devastating across the U.S. Republicans are making this into a major line of attack against President Biden, arguing he's not doing enough to stop fentanyl smuggling. Here's how this sounded during Biden's State of the Union speech last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Close the border.

MANN: Hear, Juana, Republicans jeering there. And President Biden went on to promise what he described as a surge of drug interdiction on the border. But I have to say, fentanyl is just so easy to smuggle. Experts say stopping it is nearly impossible. I've been talking to a lot of people, and I haven't heard anyone, Democrat or Republican, offer a realistic plan for keeping this stuff off American streets.

SUMMERS: And that, of course, brings us back to this trial in Brooklyn. I've got a question for both of you here. Can this kind of prosecution actually make a difference keeping drugs off the streets or in weakening the Mexican cartels? Quil, I'll start with you.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, just talking from the courthouse in Brooklyn, you know, this trial today really sprang out of testimony during the case against El Chapo Guzman four years ago in the same courthouse. And I covered that trial. And the testimony from that trial, some of it came from a Colombian kingpin from the Cali Norte del Valle Cartel. I covered him when I was a freelancer for NPR in Bogota in 1996. So it really does give this impression that no matter how many they put away, someone will always step up to supply the American demand for narcotics.

MANN: Yeah, I think that's right. And the experts I've been talking to, Juana, say, you know, there may be an element of justice here when the U.S. catches and prosecutes and punishes people who fuel and profit from this devastating drug crisis. So, you know, if you've lost a son or daughter to fentanyl or methamphetamines, this trial might feel meaningful. But in the larger sense, there is really no sign right now that cases like this have weakened the Mexican cartels or signs that this is helping Mexico reduce corruption. If anything, what I'm hearing from people I've been talking to the last couple of days, you know, these cartels are stronger than ever. Profits are way up because of fentanyl that's killing tens of thousands of Americans a year.

SUMMERS: That's NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann and NPR's Quil Lawrence, who was at the courthouse in New York City for the trial of Genaro Garcia Luna. Thank you both.

MANN: Thank you, Juana.

LAWRENCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.