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FROM OUR ARCHIVES: From South Africa to Sinaloa: Jackie Selebi and the ‘parallel’ US drug trial of Mexico’s ex-cop boss

FROM OUR ARCHIVES: From South Africa to Sinaloa: Jackie Selebi and the ‘parallel’ US drug trial of Mexico’s ex-cop boss
The late SA national police commissioner Jackie Selebi. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Bongiwe Gumede) | Mexico’s former top cop Garcia Luna. (Photo: Omar Torres / AFP)

South Africa’s one-time top cop Jackie Selebi once beat Mexico’s Genaro Garcia Luna to become president of a global police agency, Interpol. Selebi later became a convict after cosying up to a drug dealer, while Garcia Luna is now on trial in the US for allegedly taking bribes from the notorious Sinaloa Cartel.

On 8 October 2004, the international police organisation Interpol issued a statement announcing that South Africa’s national police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, was its new president.

He beat Genaro Garcia Luna, who at the time was the head of Mexico’s Federal Agency of Investigation, reportedly by a vote of 89 to 31.

Luna was, however, still elected as an Interpol delegate for the Americas. As part of Interpol, which is involved in investigations including tracing fugitives across the world, both men were in prominent global crime-fighting positions.

The two may well have interacted and shared tips.

This would have made sense because South Africa and Mexico, known for violence associated with the drug trade, have fairly similar crime crises. According to the 2022 Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime Report, Strategic Organized Crime Risk Assessment South Africa, crime in this country has even surpassed that in Mexico.

From top cops to (suspected) criminals

While wearing the global Interpol crime fighter cap from 2004, Selebi was also South Africa’s police chief from 2000 to 2008.

Fast-forward to 2010, when Selebi — who claimed detractors set him up in a move to discredit him — was found guilty of corruption in South Africa.

The country’s once highest-ranking police officer was convicted and sent to jail in a case that focused on his dodgy dealings — including bribe-taking — with a drug dealer.

Meanwhile, from 2001 to 2005, Garcia Luna headed Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency, and from 2006 to 2012 he was Mexico’s Secretary of Public Security (US authorities later said that in this position he controlled Mexico’s Federal Police Force).

In 2019, Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in the US for alleged high-level corruption, and Mexico’s former police service supervisor became a criminal suspect.

He is currently on trial in New York — jury selection continued this week — for allegedly protecting and taking piles of money from his country’s notorious Sinaloa Cartel.

SA and Mexico police parallels

There are clear similarities between South Africa and Mexico involving (sometimes alleged) police collusion with gangsters.

And while Garcia Luna faces a more complex and internationally significant legal battle, there are undeniable parallels between what is happening to him and what became of Jackie Selebi, in terms of their careers. 

selebi mexico cartels

A man holds a sign outside of a US federal courthouse asking for Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s former Secretary of Public Security, calling for him to admit his mistakes on the first day of his corruption trial in the Brooklyn borough of New York on 17 January 2023. Garcia Luna, who is highest-ranking Mexican official to face trial in the United States, has been accused of accepting large bribes from the Sinaloa drug cartel. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Justin Lane)

Both were involved in Interpol; both were police bosses in their respective countries, and both were accused of crimes relating to drugs and corruption.

They also both pleaded not guilty to the charges they faced.

In 2010, Selebi was sentenced to 15 years in jail. He was subsequently released on medical parole and died in 2015.

Selebi’s legacy, though — that of high-ranking South African Police Service members facing criminal accusations — still festers in South Africa.

Garcia Luna’s fate, meanwhile, is unfolding in a US courtroom. The book, Clash of the Cartels: Unmasking the global drug kingpins stalking South Africa, explains how some view the US as a powerful force tackling international drug trafficking, while others see it as something of a political bully.

In this realm, claims of setups, rogue government informants, dirty politics and globally operating spies abound. Garcia Luna’s trial could result in government corruption secrets being exposed.

‘Serving the Sinaloa Cartel’

Back in 2020, it was announced that Garcia Luna faced charges linked to the Sinaloa Cartel — described in US court papers involving its now-jailed head Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — as “the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organisation”.

For his part, Guzman was sentenced to a life term as well as 30 years in jail in the US in 2019. His son, Ovidio Guzman, was arrested in Sinaloa earlier this month.

But even with El Chapo behind bars, there were still many hands available to keep the wheels of the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations greased. According to US authorities, the outfit consists of thousands of members who are involved in a range of crimes, including industrial-scale drug trafficking and assassinations.

A July 2020 statement issued via the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York alleged that two former high-ranking Mexican law enforcement officials, Luis Cardenas Palomino and Ramon Pequeno Garcia — classified as “fugitives” — had colluded with Garcia Luna to benefit the Sinaloa Cartel.

Bribery and betrayal

It said that “in exchange for multimillion-dollar bribes”, they “allegedly permitted the Sinaloa Cartel to operate with impunity in Mexico”.

The statement also said: “In exchange for the payment of bribes, between January 2001 and the present, [they] abused their public positions by allowing the Sinaloa Cartel to obtain safe passage for its drug shipments.”

selebi mexico cartels

Attorney Cesar de Castro (left) arrives for the first day of jury selection for the trial of his client Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s former Secretary of Public Security, at a federal courthouse in the Brooklyn borough of New York, on 17 January 2023. Garcia Luna, who is highest-ranking Mexican official to face trial in the United States, has been accused of accepting large bribes from the Sinaloa drug cartel. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Justin Lane)

Seth DuCharme, who was the Eastern District of New York’s acting US attorney, was quoted as saying that “for nearly two decades” Garcia Luna allegedly “betrayed those he was sworn to protect by accepting bribes from members of the Sinaloa Cartel”.

An indictment against Garcia Luna and his two alleged co-accused, said: “The Sinaloa Cartel used the corruption of public officials in Mexico as a means and method of achieving the goals of its drug trafficking enterprise.”

Globally common criminal ground

Part of the US’s case against Garcia Luna is that he and some colleagues gave the Sinaloa Cartel policing information that should have stayed in cop circles.

The indictment against them alleged they “protected” the Sinaloa Cartel and provided “access to sensitive law enforcement information about law enforcement operations against [it]” as well as about “rival cartel members”.

Garcia Luna and certain colleagues were also accused of “placing other corrupt officials in positions of power in certain areas of Mexico controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel”.

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As for Jackie Selebi, part of the state’s case against him in South Africa was that, aside from accepting bribes, he shared “secret information” with convicted drug dealer Glenn Agliotti, “about an investigation against Agliotti conducted by United Kingdom law enforcement authorities; protecting Agliotti from criminal investigation”.

In South Africa’s gangsterism capital, the Western Cape, an unprecedented high court judgment in October warned that a gang known as the Mobsters allegedly “had protection and assistance from corrupt members of the police”.

The judgment added: “The corrupt police protection and assistance included transportation of its drugs from court to prison, the betrayal of rival gangs and their exposure to death and leaking of information from police planned activities, strategies and tactics to deal with gangs.”

State Capture equals cartel success

In all three cases — that against Garcia Luna and his co-accused playing out in the US, the case against Selebi in South Africa, and the gangster case stemming from the Western Cape — overriding accusations related to critical information leaks and that state officials were protecting thugs.

El Chapo was described in a US court document as “the most notorious drug trafficker in the world”.

Photo: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman (EPA)

The document explained how he shaped the Sinaloa Cartel.

“A cornerstone of his strategy was the corruption of officials at every level of local, municipal, state, national and foreign government, who were paid cash bribes to ensure that he and the Sinaloa Cartel were free to bring in tonnage quantities of cocaine from South America and move it freely to the United States.”

Corruption within a government, regardless of which country, clearly facilitates all manner of criminality.

State Capture has already ravaged South Africa, a country where drug trafficking has become entrenched and where a former top cop became a convict — his legacy lingering as other police officers are found guilty of crimes, and his background bearing similarities to ex-law enforcers from Mexico now accused of helping international narco traffickers. DM

Garcia Luna was convicted in the US on 21 February 2022 on five counts relating to a criminal enterprise, including six drug-related violations.

The US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York said: “The verdict followed a four-week trial before United States District Judge Brian M Cogan. When sentenced, Luna faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment and a maximum of life in prison.”


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Routes between Mexico and SA is well entrenched.A criminal Cartel/drug dealer cannot survive without corruption

  • William Stucke says:

    This just goes to show how futile the entire concept of a “War on Drugs” real is. Illegality increases prices and encourages smuggling and other illegal behaviour.

    Normalisation and decriminalisation open up the market and entirely removes the incentive for crime. When Joe Public can get his “hit” on the High Street in a shop or pharmacy, at a cost related to production, why would anyone pay the inflated prices charged by the criminal syndicates?

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