By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A former Mexican government official who oversaw public security in his country pleaded not guilty on Friday to U.S. charges he accepted millions of dollars in bribes to protect the Sinaloa drug cartel once run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and let it operate with impunity.
Genaro Garcia Luna, 51, entered his plea through a translator at a hearing in federal court in Brooklyn, where lawyers signaled he may be in talks to change his plea later.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Kuo ordered Garcia Luna detained after Assistant U.S. Attorney Erin Reid called him an “unacceptable risk of flight,” citing his alleged contacts with the Sinaloa cartel.
The defendant’s court-appointed lawyer said he would seek bail later.
Garcia Luna, who had moved to Florida and was living there before his arrest, has been charged with drug trafficking conspiracy and making false statements, and faces up to life in prison if convicted.
He was arrested 3-1/2 weeks ago in Dallas but agreed to face the charges in Brooklyn, where Guzman was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole last year for smuggling tons of drugs to the United States in a colorful, decades-long career.
Garcia Luna wore handcuffs, tan pants and a gray sweatshirt in the courtroom, with a pair of glasses hanging from his neckline.
Kuo agreed to delay the case so the parties could negotiate what Reid called a “potential disposition” without the need for a trial, language that often signals a future guilty plea.
A lawyer for Garcia Luna who could not attend Friday’s hearing did not immediately respond to a request for comment. U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, who oversaw Guzman’s trial, scheduled a Jan. 21 status conference for Garcia Luna.
Once considered a leader in Mexico’s efforts to reduce drug trafficking, Garcia Luna led that country’s Federal Investigation Agency from 2001 to 2005 and was secretary of public security from 2006 to 2012.
But prosecutors said the Sinaloa cartel bribed Garcia Luna throughout his time in government to ensure safe passage for its drugs, and to obtain information about rival cartels and Mexican probes into its activities.
Garcia Luna had been the subject of testimony at Guzman’s trial by Jesus Zambada, the brother of Guzman’s partner Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.
Jesus Zambada said he had given Garcia Luna a suitcase containing $3 million in 2005 or 2006, and paid him another $3 million to $5 million in 2007.
Garcia Luna at the time rejected the accusations, calling them “defamation” and without proof.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)