Mexico's General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda
Mexico's General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda speaks during an official reception in Mexico City April 24, 2014. Cienfuegos was detained in Los Angeles over drugs on Thursday, October 15, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Mexico City: Mexico’s president on Friday promised to clean up the armed forces but backed its current leadership after the arrest of a former defence minister on drugs charges in the United States.

The day after the stunning detention in Los Angeles of Salvador Cienfuegos, defence minister from 2012 to 2018, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledged to suspend anyone inside his government implicated in the charges.

“We won’t cover up for anybody,” he said, before voicing fulsome support for Cienfuegos’ successor at the head of the army and his counterpart in the navy, noting that he had personally vetted them for honesty.

“They are incorruptible,” he added at a news conference.

Some Mexican officials were privately shocked at the detention of Cienfuegos in Los Angeles airport, worrying it was an unprecedented US intervention against a symbol of Mexican national security.

But Lopez Obrador quickly incorporated the arrest into his narrative that predecessors had presided over a debilitating increase in corruption in Mexico, which for years has been convulsed by often horrific levels of drug gang violence.

“If we’re not talking about a narco state, one can certainly talk about a narco government, and without doubt, about a government of mafiosi,” Lopez Obrador said.

“We’re cleaning up, purifying public life.” Lopez Obrador said he only heard about the arrest after the event, though he noted that Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Martha Barcena, had informed him about two weeks ago that there was talk of an investigation involving Cienfuegos.

There had been no open probe in Mexico on Cienfuegos and his arrest was linked to the case against Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s security minister from 2006-2012, who was detained by U.S. authorities last year on drugs charges, Lopez Obrador said.

Two Mexican federal sources told Reuters the investigation involved money laundering and drug trafficking.

Like Garcia Luna, Cienfuegos had been a major figure in Mexico’s drug war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over the past two decades.

The arrest comes less than three weeks before the US presidential election. President Donald Trump, seeking a second term, has made clamping down on drug cartels a priority, though without major progress since he took office in 2017.