The Rebirth of Omar García Harfuch

Mexico City’s former chief of police is believed to have participated in the forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students in 2014. A decade later, president-elect Claudia Sheinbaum is poised to make him Mexico’s most powerful policeman.

June 29, 2024

Omar García Harfuch, the former chief of the Mexico City police, is expected to be named Secretary of Security and Civilian Protection in Claudia Sheinbaum's admistration. (Eneas De Troya / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

On October 1, Claudia Sheinbaum will be inaugurated as president of Mexico, replacing Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as the head, or at least the face, of the ruling Morena party.

Sheinbaum’s cabinet is expected to include Omar García Harfuch, the chief of the Mexico City police under her mayorship (2019-2023), who has become something of a confidant to the president-elect. Though García Harfuch was not one of the first six ministerial picks announced last week, Sheinbaum has already confirmed that he will be part of her cabinet. The position most suited to his background is that of Secretary of Security and Civilian Protection (SSPC). In November 2023, El País reported that “it is taken for granted that the former police chief will join Sheinbaum’s government as head of the public security portfolio if she wins next year’s presidential election.”

García Harfuch has been elected as a senator for Mexico City, after a failed bid to replace Sheinbaum as mayor. His running mate, Ernestina Godoy Ramos, was just named legal advisor in the new Sheinbaum cabinet.

On June 11, García Harfuch was spotted leaving Sheinbaum’s new headquarters in the Iztapalapa borough of Mexico City, where the president-elect was holding a first “informal” meeting with two U.S. officials: Homeland Security Advisor Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall and Ambassador Ken Salazar. Sheinbaum explained afterwards that García Harfuch was there to present the security policy he had developed in the nation’s capital. Another meeting between Sheinbaum and García Harfuch took place at the headquarters on June 17.

García Harfuch is being marketed—to Mexican society and to the Biden administration—as a skilled and loyal crime-fighter. Yet, a decade ago, he participated in the most infamous state crime in recent Mexican history. On the night of September 26, 2014, a group of students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s College were attacked and abducted by police, soldiers, and other criminals while passing through the town of Iguala, in the southwestern state of Guerrero. Six people were shot dead and 43 students were forcibly disappeared by various municipal, state, and federal forces, including the Federal Police’s command in Guerrero—which at the time was led by none other than García Harfuch.

García Harfuch and the New Dirty War

García Harfuch was born in 1982 in Cuernavaca, Morelos, to the telenovela star María Harfuch Hidalgo and the late Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) statesman Javier García Paniagua. García Harfuch’s father and grandfather were top security officials during what is known as the “Dirty War,” waged by the Mexican state against left-wing students and other enemies of the Cold War-era United States. His father was the head of the Federal Security Directorate, an intelligence and secret police agency, from 1977 to 1978, and chief of the Mexico City police from 1988 to 1991. His grandfather, Marcelino García Barragán, served as defense secretary under President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, helping to orchestrate the mass shooting of students in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City on the evening of October 2, 1968. On the night of the attack in Iguala in 2014, the Ayotzinapa students were making their way to Mexico City for an annual commemoration of the Tlatelolco massacre.

García Harfuch joined the Secretariat of Public Security in 2008, at just 26 years old, where he served a cabal of federal officers headed by Genaro García Luna, Ramón Pequeño García, Luis Cárdenas Palomino, and others who participated in the drug trafficking operations of the Sinaloa Cartel while pretending fight President Felipe Calderón’s bloody “war on drugs.” These men have become synonymous with the Mexican state’s collusion with organized crime: Pequeño García is considered a fugitive of the U.S. judiciary, where he is wanted on drug charges; Cárdenas Palomino, also wanted in the United States, is currently awaiting trial for torture in Mexico’s Altiplano prison; and in February 2023, García Luna was convicted by a federal jury in Brooklyn on charges of cocaine trafficking and taking millions of dollars in cash bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.

García Harfuch quickly climbed the ranks. In 2013, he was named Guerrero state coordinator of the Federal Police, a body of the executive government that has since been absorbed by AMLO’s National Guard. At that time, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), drug traffickers based in Guerrero were smuggling large amounts of cocaine, heroin, and cash into the United States. In particular, Iguala was a point of origin for shipments of heroin to Chicago.

“He was head of the Federal Police in a region that, at that time, became the largest heroin-exporting zone in the hemisphere,” John Gibler, an investigative journalist who has reported extensively on the Ayotzinapa case, said in an interview. “The state forces and the heroin producers and traffickers were basically on different managerial levels of the same global corporation.”

During the second year of García Harfuch’s tenure in Guerrero, the state’s systemic repression and surveillance of radical students, dating back to the old Dirty War, ignited a fuse that burned into the heart of Mexico’s new drug war. The Guerrero command of the Federal Police became one of the key players in the abduction and forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, and in the subsequent cover-up.

García Harfuch was the coordinator of the now defunct Federal Police in the state of Guerrero when the Ayotzinapa abductions occurred in 2014. (Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

A Notorious Cover-Up

The three reports subsequently issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) outline the role of the Federal Police clearly. The Federal Police was one of the state bodies that surveilled the Ayotzinapa students in the years, weeks, days, and hours prior to the September 26 attack. It is now known that the Federal Police participated in the ambush of the buses transporting the students in Iguala. In the ensuing weeks, Federal Police representatives were present in the “war room” coordinated by Tomas Zerón de Lucio, made up of an ad hoc group of intelligence, army, navy, and police officials responsible for covering up the Ayotzinapa case. This cover-up, we now know, involved arbitrary detentions and brutal torture, carried out in part by the Federal Police.

Since October 2014, prosecutors have accused Sidronio Casarrubias Salgado, alias El Chino, of leading the Guerreros Unidos gang and ordering the attack on the 43 students. Prior to the attack, El Chino kept a notebook, writing down names, phone numbers, addresses, and sums of money. In it, he wrote the following: “Omar García Harfush [sic]. Federal policeman. Commissioner for GRO [Guerrero],” accompanied by a phone number. For his part, García Harfuch has denied any collusion with Casarrubias Salgado. The “verdad historica”—a vast state cover-up that involved torture, fabricated evidence, and a falsified narrative of the events surrounding the attack—was thus concocted precisely to protect officials like García Harfuch, officials who had both links to drug-trafficking operations in Iguala and direct authority over the forces who carried out the attack.

In November 2016, García Harfuch replaced Zerón de Lucio, disgraced and now harbored in Israel, as head of the attorney general's office’s Criminal Investigative Agency (AIC), remaining in this position until the end of the government of Enrique Peña Nieto in 2018. Investigative journalist Anabel Hernández reports in her new book on AMLO and the Sinaloa Cartel that, during this time, García Harfuch received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from the cartel. Hernández also says DEA agents have confirmed to her that García Harfuch’s team at the AIC stole drugs and money from criminal syndicates during policing operations.

García Harfuch’s Troubled Rise Under Morena

After AMLO entered office, García Harfuch not only remained shielded from accountability, but acquired more and more power—so much so that he is now expected to be the top law enforcement official in Morena’s successor government. As Pablo Ferri has reported in El País, “No high-level official from the previous regime has reached such extensive power as [García Harfuch].”

How did García Harfuch become part of AMLO’s government? Hernández has reported that Cárdenas Palomino was present at several meetings during the presidential transition of 2018. It was perhaps lobbying by his former boss, then, that afforded García Harfuch an official position in the new administration. He became part of Morena in 2019, and in June of that year, Sheinbaum, then mayor of the nation’s capital, named him chief of the Mexico City attorney general’s Investigative Police. A few months later, he became chief of the Mexico City police.

In June 2020, heavily armed gunmen ambushed García Harfuch’s car on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. Just hours after the attack, while he was still being treated for three bullet wounds, García Harfuch posted a tweet blaming the Jalisco New Generation Cartel for the attack. Sheinbaum tweeted a picture of her sitting next to García Harfuch in his hospital bed. “We have a great police force that today is headed by a great, honest, prepared and courageous leader,” Sheinbaum told the media. El País published a profile of García Harfuch in 2021 that described him as a “clever and eager guy.” He used the opportunity to deny his involvement in the Ayotzinapa case, saying, “No good person ever wants to have their name associated with that place.”

Army documents published by El País just a year after this obsequious profile show that García Harfuch participated in at least two meetings in Iguala on October 7 and 8, 2014, where officials planned the Peña Nieto government’s cover-up. Alejandro Encinas, the head of the Ayotzinapa truth commission, said explicitly in September 2023 that García Harfuch was seated in the war room. Choosing his words carefully, García Harfuch responded, “I did not intervene during these meetings.” No tuve intervención alguna durante las reuniones.

After interviewing García Harfuch, the Wall Street Journal recently published a glowing review of Sheinbaum’s policies on organized crime in Mexico City and her potential to “replicate her success on a national scale” as president. The article did not mention the events of March 15, 2023, when agents including Mexico City police under García Harfuch’s command broke into the headquarters of a narco-linked investment firm in the Anzures neighborhood, planted weapons and fake drugs, disabled security cameras, and stole more than 70 million pesos in cash.

In May 2024, after several delays, García Harfuch was set to testify in the federal trial against Casarrubias Salgado for organized crime and enforced disappearance. It would have been the first time García Harfuch was questioned in a trial related to the Ayotzinapa case. But federal judge Raquel Ivette Duarte Cedillo postponed his testimony at the last minute, supposedly on procedural grounds.

The Paradoxical Fourth Transformation

García Harfuch’s role in the Ayotzinapa case may seem marginal compared to unsavory figures like Zerón de Lucio and then-attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam, who is currently under house arrest and awaiting trial for enforced disappearance, torture, and obstruction of justice at his home in the ritzy Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City. These two certainly held more powerful roles than García Harfuch within the Peña Nieto administration. Nonetheless, we should question why García Harfuch, whose zone of command centered on Iguala, seems to play such a small part in the AMLO government’s description of the “state crime” that occurred during his tenure.

Justice for Ayotzinapa was initially a key part of AMLO’s narrative of national reparation. “The López Obrador administration came into power in 2018 with an explicit commitment to solve the Ayotzinapa case, to find the students, and to do justice—something he did with no other political violence or human rights case,” Gibler said.

Yet, over the course of his presidency, AMLO ceded more and more power to the very military that helped orchestrate and conceal the attack on the students in Iguala. He repatriated Salvador Cienfuegos—a Dirty War veteran who served as defense secretary during the Iguala attack—and unilaterally cleared him of the drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges leveled against him in the United States. Starting in August 2022, federal prosecutors launched a hostile takeover of the special unit created by AMLO to investigate the Ayotzinapa case. The López Obrador administration has systematically destroyed its own institutional effort to pursue justice.

At a June 3 meeting with the families of the disappeared students, whom he once advocated for, the president claimed that the Ayotzinapa case was being “used” by foreign governments to “weaken” the Mexican army, insisted that the army has released all the information it has on the case (the families dispute this), attacked the lawyers representing the families, and accused the GIEI of representing the interests of the U.S. government. Sheinbaum was not present for this unfortunate encounter, though López Obrador says he aims to have the families meet with her on July 3.

“We have now seen two successive governments who choose to make it impossible to know what really happened that night, to make it impossible to find the students, to find the full truth of who did what, when, where, and why,” Gibler said.

García Harfuch’s rise is emblematic of the paradoxes at the heart of AMLO’s highly publicized "quarta transformación" or Fourth Transformation. López Obrador has a strange relationship to the narco-state regime he supposedly set out to transform. Evidence uncovered by the DEA suggests that the Sinaloa Cartel funneled $2 million into López Obrador’s first presidential campaign in 2006. After being elected in 2018 on promises to transform a Mexican society left deeply lacerated by the drug war, AMLO has traveled six times as president to Badiraguato, Sinaloa, the de facto birthplace of the Mexican drug trade, on one occasion shaking hands with former Sinaloa druglord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán’s elderly mother during the outbreak of Covid-19. He has promised drug traffickers a diffuse policy of “hugs, not bullets.” Recently, at one of his morning press conferences, AMLO described drug traffickers as well-behaved, respectful people who “respect the citizenry.”

“Wherever the state exerts more effort and more energy to maintain silence, it usually means there’s something bigger they’re trying to hide,” Gibler said of the Ayotzinapa case. “If they’re going through this much effort to boldly lie about [García Harfuch] even being there, then it’s probably because his participation is of utmost value for them to conceal.”

This September will mark 10 years since that infernal night in Iguala. After a decade of being denied justice, and worrying signs from the ruling party, it may now seem to the parents of the Ayotzinapa victims that Mexico’s Fourth Transformation has been a full revolution, a 360-degree turn, in which their country has ended where it started: with their sons’ killers in power.

Suhail Gharaibeh is a historian, writer, and former deputy news editor at Washington Square News. In the fall of 2024 he will begin his PhD in History at Columbia University.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.