Arrest of former defense minister shatters trust in Mexico's armed forces

Mexico's Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda salutes soldiers at the Number 1 military camp in Mexico City.

(CNN)The general's speech was forceful and unequivocal, his demeanor somber and severe. Impeccably dressed in full military uniform, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, then Mexican Secretary of Defense, spoke before a group of thousands of Mexican soldiers under his command on a spring day in April 2016 at Military Camp Number One, near Mexico City.

"Those who act like criminals," the general said, reading from prepared remarks, "those who disrespect people, those who disobey -- not only are they breaking the law but are not worthy of belonging to the armed forces."
At the time, Cienfuegos Zepeda was reacting to a video showing several soldiers torturing a suspect. The video of the crying woman, sitting on the floor with her hands tied behind her back, had gone viral in Mexico, tarnishing the reputation of an army that had been increasingly used by then President Enrique Peña Nieto and his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, for law enforcement purposes, especially for Mexico's war on drugs.
    The general's words now sound hollow. The man in charge of the Mexican armed forces between 2012 and 2018 was arrested Thursday upon his arrival at Los Angeles International Airport. According to federal prosecutors, the 72-year-old faces drug and money laundering charges.
    Cienfuegos Zepeda, who served 54 years in the Mexican armed forces, is accused of taking bribes in exchange for allowing a Mexican drug cartel, known for gruesome acts of violence, to operate with impunity in Mexico.

    Now what?

    The arrest of general Cienfuegos Zepeda has shaken not only the armed forces but also the trust Mexicans have had in the military for generations.
    A 2017 survey conducted by Parametría, a Mexican polling firm, concluded that six in 10 Mexicans agreed the military should continue doing security work on the streets. The survey also showed the armed forces were among the most trusted institutions in the country, a finding that had remained favorable for the military for the preceding 15 years.
    Local and federal police forces lost the trust of the Mexican people a long time ago. After all, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, aka "The Godfather," leader of the Guadalajara Cartel at its height in the 1980s and blamed for the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985, started his career as a federal police agent.
    For two decades, presidents have entrusted anti-narcotics enforcement to the military -- from right-wing Vicente Fox in the early 2000s, to his successor, Feli