From Ayotzinapa to the slaughter of the leader of H2: the multiple questions of Cienfuegos’ past

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The prosecution suggests that the alleged criminal activities of the former army chief transcend the Peña Nieto years. Nayarit and Guerrero appear repeatedly in his past

In June 2015, Salvador Cienfuegos, head of the Mexican Army, gave an interview to a national newspaper. It was strange, the secretaries of Defense do not usually lavish themselves on the media, but Cienfuegos, who had been in office for three years, decided to speak. Among other things, the general identified a half dozen risks to national security. One was corruption: “It can become a threat if due attention is not paid so that it is contained.”

Given the drug trafficking accusations against him, the question is what corruption he was referring to. According to a brief from the New York Eastern District Attorney, Cienfuegos exchanged thousands of messages with the H2 criminal group, a split from the Beltrán Leyva criminal network. The general ensured the transfer of drugs to this group and prevented the Army from bothering them, according to the prosecutor’s brief. The investigators manage a time span that begins in December 2015 and ends in February 2017, although they open the door to the fact that the military’s collaboration with drug trafficking groups had begun earlier. “Among the communications intercepted in the course of this investigation (…) there are those in which the defendant comments on his historical help to another organization of drug traffickers.”

The apparent forcefulness of the accusation opens a number of questions, many about the general’s past. Cienfuegos, who retired at the end of the Government of Enrique Peña Nieto (20012-2018), wore olive green for more than 50 years. He went through barracks throughout the country and commanded the military regions of Chiapas, Mexico City, Jalisco and Guerrero.

Without mentioning them, the indictment points directly to two regions: the Pacific coast, from Jalisco to Nayarit and the state of Guerrero. Nayarit was the fiefdom of the H2 group. Not much was known about them in the media, until in February 2017, a group of sailors liquidated 14 members of the network in Tepic, the capital of Nayarit. Beyond the number of deaths, the media turned to Tepic for the spectacular nature of the confrontation. For weeks, videos of the operation circulated on social networks. In some, a helicopter gunship appears shooting alleged criminals from the air. One of the dead was precisely Francisco Patrón, alias H2.

With the death of Patron, Cienfuegos’ collaboration with his group ended. At least that is clear from the indictment, which says that the general collaborated with this network from December 2015 until then. It is not yet known where the accusation against Cienfuegos came from, but just a year ago, the United States justice sentenced the former Nayarit prosecutor, Edgar Veytia, to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking. The accusation was similar to the one against Cienfuegos: collaborating with the H2 group. In recent weeks, it has emerged that Veytia has asked that his sentence be reviewed, presumably for his collaboration with the justice system.

Originally from Sinaloa, just north of Nayarit, the Beltrán Leyva criminal group extended its tentacles more than a decade ago through the State of Guerrero, key in the production of marijuana and poppies. Cienfuegos was commander of the Guerrero military region from June 2005 to January 2007. After the death and capture of its leaders, the Beltrán Leyva network broke up into criminal groups, such as Guerreros Unidos.

Over the past 15 years, the capacities of these groups seemed less, but the Ayotzinapa case showed that this was not entirely true. In September 2014, Guerreros Unidos attacked a group of students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Normal School in Iguala, Guerrero. The criminals obtained active or passive help, conscious or unconscious, from police of various municipalities, federal police, ministerial police and military. During the investigation, it emerged that Guerreros Unidos managed drug trafficking routes to the United States.

From the beginning, the families of the 43 students who disappeared during the Iguala attack asked investigators to investigate the Army. Without being the ones who launched the attack, the military avoided protecting the students, even when they saw someone wounded by gunshots in the hospital. The families asked to enter the Iguala barracks, investigate the chain of command, but it was not done. Cienfuegos always had the last word.

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