Former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested by U.S. authorities at Los Angeles International Airport late Thursday, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter.
Foreign Minister Ebrard said on Friday that he was informed of the detention of Cienfuegos by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
“The Consul in Los Angeles will be informing me of the charges in the next few hours,” said Ebrard. “I will keep you posted.”
General Cienfuegos, 72, served as defense minister from 2012 to 2018 under former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and was a powerful figure in the country’s drug war in which the military battled cartels across the country.
Peña Nieto was in office for six years through December 2018. Several members of his cabinet and party have been implicated in high-level corruption cases, sometimes involving allegations of links to organized crime.
Under Cienfuegos, the army was accused of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses, including the 2014 Tlatlaya massacre, where 22 drug gang members were executed.
The armed forces have taken an increasingly prominent role in fighting crime in Mexico, and have been viewed by some as less prone to corruption than police forces.
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The high-level arrest of Cienfuegos comes less than three weeks before the U.S. presidential election.
President Donald Trump, seeking a second term, made clamping down on cartel activity a major policy objective when he took office in 2017.
The war against the cartels has taken a heavy toll on the Mexican people. There have been 150,000 murders related to organized crime in Mexico since 2006, according to a Congressional Research report published this year. Some 73,000 people were also reported missing from 2007 to mid-2020, according to the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Reuters contributed to this report.
This is a breaking news story, please check back for updates.
Andrew Blankstein is an investigative reporter for NBC News. He covers the Western United States, specializing in crime, courts and homeland security.