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U.S. says former top Mexican security official took bribes to give Sinaloa drug cartel 'impunity'

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former Mexican government official responsible for public security has been charged with accepting millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa drug cartel once run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to help it operate with “impunity” in Mexico, U.S. prosecutors said on Tuesday.

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Genaro Garcia Luna, 51, who now lives in Florida, faces charges of drug trafficking conspiracy and making false statements, and could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted, the Department of Justice said.

Garcia Luna was arrested in Dallas on Monday and is expected to face the charges in the same Brooklyn, New York, court where a jury convicted Guzman in February on drug trafficking charges.

A lawyer for Garcia Luna, Rose Romero, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue in Brooklyn said the case “demonstrates our resolve to bring to justice those who help cartels inflict devastating harm on the United States and Mexico.”

Garcia Luna led Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency from 2001 to 2005 and was secretary of public security from 2006 to 2012.

According to court papers, the Sinaloa cartel bribed Garcia Luna throughout his time in government to ensure safe passage for its drugs, and obtain information about rival cartels and Mexican probes into its activities.

Prosecutors said Garcia Luna, who moved to the United States in 2012, also lied about his conduct when he applied for naturalization in 2018.

The defendant faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison if convicted on the drug conspiracy charge.

Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez, who has reported on Garcia Luna’s ties with the Sinaloa cartel, said she has received death threats for her work.

“When he was secretary of public security, he... made agreements with the Sinaloa cartel, protected them and received bribes in exchange for that protection,” Hernandez said in an interview.

Guzman was sentenced to life in prison without parole and moved to a high-security facility in Colorado after being convicted of smuggling tons of drugs to the United States over a colourful, decades-long career.

He had become almost legendary for escaping from Mexican high-security jails twice and avoiding massive manhunts, while cultivating a Robin Hood image among the poor in Sinaloa.

Reporting by Brendan Pierson and Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Adriana Barrera in Mexico City; Editing by Nick Macfie, Rosalba O’Brien and Tom Brown