Who Is Salvador Cienfuegos? Former Mexican Defense Secretary Arrested in U.S. on Drug-Related Charges

General Salvador Cienfuegos, who served as the defense secretary for former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, has been arrested on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, according to U.S. and Mexican sources, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

Cienfuegos was detained Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport under a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warrant.

Cienfuegos, 72, who has retired from active military service, led Mexico's army from 2012 to 2018 during Nieto's presidency.

Mexican Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, noted on Twitter: "I have been informed by Ambassador Christopher Landau of the United States that the former Secretary of National Defense, General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, has been detained at the Los Angeles Airport, California.

"The Consul in Los Angeles will be informing me of the charges in the next few hours. We will offer the consular assistance to which you are entitled. I keep you posted," he noted in another tweet.

Cienfuegos is the highest-ranking former Cabinet official to be arrested since top Mexican security official Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in 2019.

Garcia Luna is on trial in New York on suspicion of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from a drug cartel formerly led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, which he was tasked with combating, Reuters reported.

While Cienfuegos was in charge, the Mexican army was accused of frequent human rights abuses. Among the incidents reported during his service was the 2014 military killing of suspected drug gang members.

The incident, which took place in June 2014, involved soldiers who killed 22 suspects at a warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya in southern Mexico.

Some suspects were reported to have died during an initial shootout. But a human rights investigation later revealed around eight to 12 suspects were executed after they had surrendered.

Last month, arrest warrants were also issued in Mexico for soldiers in connection with the kidnapping and alleged killing of 43 students in 2014 in a town known for heroin trafficking.

Mike Vigil, the DEA's former chief of international operations, heard about corruption allegations around Cienfuegos when he was in Mexico in 2012.

"There were always allegations of corruption, nothing we could sink our teeth into. That was kind of unheard of because Mexico has always put the military on a pedestal.

"The corruption is just coming to roost, because individuals who were once untouchable are now getting arrested.

"It's really a precarious situation for Mexico to have two Cabinet-level officials arrested in the U.S.," Vigil said.

Salvador Cienfuegos Mexico defense secretary 2014
Salvador Cienfuegos (left), Mexico's former defense secretary, speaking at an official reception on April 24, 2014 in Mexico City, Mexico. Cienfuegos was arrested Thursday on drug-related charges. Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images