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Ex-Mexico drug czar convicted in U.S. of taking bribes from cartel

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -A former Mexican law enforcement official once in charge of his country's fight against drug traffickers was convicted on Tuesday on U.S. charges that he took millions of dollars in bribes from the infamous Sinaloa cartel.

Federal prosecutors in the New York City borough of Brooklyn said Genaro Garcia Luna accepted bribes from the cartel once run by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in exchange for protection from arrest, safe passage for cocaine shipments and tipoffs about forthcoming law enforcement operations.

On its third day of deliberations, the jury found Garcia Luna guilty on all five counts he faced, which included continuing criminal enterprise and conspiracy to distribute cocaine in the United States.

Garcia Luna, 54, is one of the highest-ranking Mexican officials ever accused of ties to drug trafficking. He led Mexico's Federal Investigation Agency from 2001 to 2005 and was public security minister for six years until 2012.

Garcia Luna worked closely with U.S. counter-narcotics and intelligence agencies as part of former President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on cartels.

He now faces a prison term of at least 20 years, and up to the rest of his life, when he is sentenced on June 27.

"Garcia Luna, who once stood at the pinnacle of law enforcement in Mexico, will now live the rest of his days having been revealed as a traitor to his country," Breon Peace, the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, said in a statement following the verdict.

Cesar de Castro, a defense lawyer, told reporters Garcia Luna will "continue to do everything he can to clear his good name."

"Mr. Garcia Luna, his family, and the defense team trusted in the process, trusted that the jury would see through the government's case," de Castro said outside the courthouse. "We are very disappointed that it did not, but we respect the jury's decision."

Calderon said in a statement shared on Twitter that he "respects the decisions of courts that act in accordance with the law," but that the verdict is being used "politically to attack" him. He said the decision does not diminish his administration's anti-crime efforts.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said on Twitter the verdict "showcases the unwavering U.S. commitment to defending democracy and zero tolerance for corruption".

During a four-week trial, jurors heard from nine convicted cartel members who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors' investigation and testified about bribes Garcia Luna received.

Garcia Luna, who moved to the United States after leaving office and was arrested in Texas in 2019, had pleaded not guilty.

His lawyers argued that prosecutors relied on inconsistent narratives from convicted violent criminals who were implicating him to get revenge on the man who arrested them, and in a bid to lower their U.S. prison sentences.

Jesus Ramirez, a spokesman for current Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, said in a tweet: "Justice has come for the former squire of @FelipeCalderon. The crimes against our people will never be forgotten."

Following Garcia Luna's arrest, Calderon expressed profound shock and said he was unaware of what his former security minister is alleged to have done.

Guzman was sentenced to life in prison in 2019 following his conviction in Brooklyn on drug trafficking and murder conspiracy charges. He is at a high-security "Supermax" prison in Colorado.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Additional reporting by Kylie Madry and Valentine Hilaire in Mexico City; Editing by Leslie Adler, Alistair Bell and Bill Berkrot)