Jurors at the trial of Genaro García Luna have heard about murders, kidnappings, drug shipments and accusations of bribes paid by the Sinaloa drug cartel.
Alan Feuer and
The trial of Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s former top security official, who is facing U.S. charges of taking bribes from drug lords, has touched on an array of subjects typical for cartel cases. The jurors have heard about gory murders, boatloads of narcotics, even a white cat named Cocaine.
They have also heard, of course, about the central accusation against Mr. García Luna: that while serving as the public face of Mexico’s war on drugs, he was secretly taking millions from the country’s biggest crime group, the Sinaloa drug cartel.
The trial, now entering its third week, is being heard in the courthouse for the Eastern District of New York, in Downtown Brooklyn. Prosecutors say that with Mr. García Luna’s help, the Sinaloa cartel was able to ship large quantities of drugs to parts of the city, including Queens and Brooklyn, that fall under the federal court’s supervision.
The trial is expected to last another month or so, and the government’s case will continue to feature a parade of drug world witnesses. Those could include Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a high school football star from Texas who rose to fame as a trafficker in Mexico, and Edgar Veytia, a former attorney general of Mexico’s Pacific Coast state of Nayarit.
The defense will most likely counter by claiming what it did when the trial began last month: that the prosecution’s witnesses are lying and that beyond their accounts, no hard evidence exists that Mr. García Luna ever took a bribe.
Here are key takeaways from last week’s testimony.
On Monday, the jury heard from Oscar Nava Valencia, the former leader of the Milenio cartel, who claimed to have personally paid off Mr. García Luna. Mr. Nava Valencia testified that in 2008, while seeking protection against a violent rival, he gave Mr. García Luna $3 million in cash at a secret meeting at a carwash.
Known as El Lobo, or the Wolf, Mr. Nava Valencia explained the context for the payoff to the jury: His onetime ally in the Sinaloa cartel, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, had turned on him after Mr. Nava Valencia chose to support a rival faction of the organization during a bloody civil war, and he needed Mr. García Luna’s help.
So, he said, he set up the meeting in a second-story office of Estetic Carwash in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco State. Mr. García Luna, he went on, brought one of his top lieutenants, Luis Cárdenas Palomino, who has also been charged in the federal case but remains in custody in Mexico.
Mr. Nava Valencia’s testimony followed a similar account about graft from Sergio Villarreal Barragán, who is known as El Grande for his hulking size and was a top aide to Mr. Beltrán Leyva. Last month, Mr. Villarreal Barragán appeared in court and told the jury that he and Mr. Beltrán Leyva had given Mr. García Luna more than $14 million during a drug deal in a warehouse in the early 2000s.
Under cross-examination, Mr. Nava Valencia admitted that he was scared of testifying against Mr. García Luna, who once held a powerful cabinet-level position in the government of Mexico’s president at the time, Felipe Calderón, and had been the head of the country’s equivalent of the F.B.I.
In fact, during an interview with prosecutors only two months ago, Mr. Nava Valencia said, he briefly backed away from his claims about knowing Mr. García Luna at all.
The confusion, he told the jury, stemmed from the fact that he and his family had been threatened because he cooperated with the authorities. He gave no details about the threat.
“I was worried about my family in Mexico,” Mr. Nava Valencia said. “I feel I’m in danger.”
On Tuesday, jurors heard from another cooperating witness, Israel Ávila, a Sinaloa cartel accountant, who offered insight into the tumultuous relationship between Mr. García Luna and Mr. Beltrán Leyva.
Mr. Ávila told the jury that when the cartel erupted into a civil war, Mr. Beltrán Leyva wanted to know whether Mr. García Luna would support his side or the side of his top rival, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug lord known as El Chapo, who was convicted four years ago at a trial in the same Brooklyn courthouse.
When Mr. García Luna failed to provide an answer, Mr. Ávila said, Mr. Beltrán Leyva had him kidnapped — a remarkably brazen move to take against a member of the presidential cabinet.
The abduction lasted a week, other witnesses have said, and ended without harm to Mr. García Luna. Not long after he was freed, he and Mr. Beltrán Leyva were apparently friendly and working together again. In late 2008, Mr. Ávila told the jury, Mr. García Luna helped his patron get away from a raid by the authorities on a house in Acapulco.
The escape was pulled off with a bit of law enforcement subterfuge. Subordinates of Mr. García Luna disguised Mr. Beltrán Leyva as a federal police officer, Mr. Ávila said, and spirited him out of the house.
The story of Mr. García Luna’s kidnapping was corroborated on Wednesday by yet another witness from the drug world: Harold Mauricio Poveda-Ortega, a Colombian trafficker who served for years as Mr. Beltrán Leyva’s chief supplier of cocaine.
Known as “the Rabbit” (and for marking his product with a bunny logo identical to that of Playboy Enterprises), Mr. Poveda-Ortega told the jury that Mr. Beltrán Leyva had once confessed to abducting Mr. García Luna in a fit of rage after suspecting him of choosing Mr. Guzmán’s side in the cartel’s civil war. Not content with merely holding his victim, Mr. Poveda-Ortega testified, Mr. Beltrán Leyva said he wanted to decapitate him.
“He was going to send his head out so that people could see that nobody could take him for a fool,” Mr. Poveda-Ortega told the jury.
The internecine battle between Mr. Beltrán Leyva and Mr. Guzmán and his allies was exceedingly violent and often led to casualties among federal police officers and officials who were loyal to either faction.
Early in the trial, the jury heard about one of those slain police officials, Edgar Millán Gómez, who had allied himself with Mr. Guzmán and was murdered by a professional hit squad in 2008 at the height of the civil war.
In his testimony on Wednesday, Mr. Poveda-Ortega said he tried to talk Mr. Beltrán Leyva out of killing Mr. García Luna, worried that the consequences might be grave.
“I said, ‘No, don’t do it,’” Mr. Poveda-Ortega recalled. “We’re going to have problem after problem. The government is going to come after us with full force.”
One thing the trial has revealed is that there were warning signs about Mr. García Luna’s connections to the Sinaloa cartel long before the federal indictment against him was returned in Brooklyn in 2019.
As early as 2008, a Mexican police officer, Francisco Cañedo Zavaleta, filed a report with the Mexican authorities about an episode he said he witnessed that led him to believe that Mr. García Luna had ties to the cartel.
On Thursday, Mr. Cañedo Zavaleta, who is no longer a police officer, told the jury that he filed the report after seeing Mr. García Luna get into a car with Mr. Beltrán Leyva and an aide, Edgar Valdez, on a road outside Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos state. The former officer recalled that the meeting took place shortly after news emerged that Mr. Millán Gómez, the police official allied with El Chapo, had been murdered.
Mr. Cañedo Zavaleta’s report was ultimately leaked to the news media, which described the encounter as a kidnapping. Mr. Cañedo Zavaleta paid dearly for coming forward: He was soon accused of drug trafficking and was taken into custody. In the end, though, Mr. Cañedo Zavaleta told the jury, he was cleared of all crimes.
American law enforcement officers eventually got their own report about Mr. García Luna’s links to the cartel from a source who claimed to have firsthand knowledge: Sergio Villarreal Barragán, the trafficker known as El Grande, who testified last month.
After his arrest in Mexico, Mr. Villarreal Barragán, who served as a police officer before he went to work for Mr. Beltrán Leyva, told U.S. officials that Mr. García Luna had been taking bribes from the cartel, according to Miguel Madrigal, a D.E.A. agent stationed in Mexico at the time, who testified on Thursday.
“He talked about business dealings they had when Sergio was a police officer and a member of the Beltrán organization,” Mr. Madrigal said.
Alan Feuer covers extremism and political violence. He joined The Times in 1999. More about Alan Feuer