NEW YORK (AP) – U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday formally dropped a drug and money laundering case against a former Mexican defense minister, a decision taken after Mexico threatened to suspend cooperation with U.S. authorities unless the general sent home.
A judge in New York approved the dismissal of the charges, ending a lightning-fast reversal in the case of former General Salvador Cienfuegos, who was arrested weeks ago in Los Angeles but will be returned to Mexico in an unusual diplomatic deal between the two countries.
“The United States has decided that the broader interest in maintaining this collaborative relationship outweighs the department̵
He said the decision to drop the charges was made by Attorney General William Barr.
Mexican authorities have complained that the United States has not shared evidence against Cienfuegos and that his arrest came as a surprise. This has also caused concern among the Mexican military, which has played a crucial role in operations against drug cartels.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Wednesday that he had told Bar that the United States should choose whether to try Cienfuegos and continue cooperating.
“It’s in your hands. “You can’t have both,” Ebrard said, telling Bar. “You can’t work closely with all Mexican institutions and do that at the same time.”
While Ebrard said he was not threatening any “concrete action,” such as restricting US agents in Mexico, he told Bar, “I guess that worries him.” He added that he had called on US Ambassador Christopher Landau to express his displeasure with Mexico.
It is rare for a highly valued defendant in a US case to be arrested and then released shortly for diplomatic reasons. But this is not unprecedented, although historically it is more likely to occur in cases involving espionage than drug trafficking.
The arrest threatens to seriously damage the delicate relationship between American and Mexican investigators, which has led to the conviction of many royal drug addicts over the past quarter century. However, the termination of the case was an embarrassment for the American authorities, who advertised his arrest as a major breakthrough.
U.S. prosecutors in Manhattan recently opposed the diplomatic efforts of another U.S. ally, Turkey, to drop charges against a major state-owned bank accused of violating sanctions against Iran.
Cienfuegos, a general who headed Mexico’s military department for six years under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto, was the highest-ranking former Mexican cabinet official arrested since senior security officer Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in 2019.
Cienfuegos was secretly indicted by a federal jury in New York in 2019. He was accused of plotting with the H-2 cartel in Mexico to smuggle thousands of pounds of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while he was defense minister from 2012 to 2018. .
Prosecutors said the intercepted reports showed that Cienfuegos had accepted bribes in return to ensure that the military did not take action against the cartel and that operations were launched against its rivals. He was also accused of introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said the Mexican Attorney General’s Office will decide whether Cienfuegos is in custody once he is returned. But given that there are still no fees in Mexico, he is likely to be released. “This does not mean impunity; that means an investigation will be launched, “Lopez Obrador said.
“Gen. “Cienfuegos is returning to Mexico as a free man,” said Ebrard.
Analysts say Cienfuegos is unlikely to be indicted in Mexico.
“This is not going to happen, we all know it,” columnist Carlos Lloret de Mola wrote in El Universal. “He will return to Mexico and be released because that is the promise President Lopez Obrador made to the military.”
Under an agreement signed by prosecutors and the general, Cienfuegos will travel from the United States to Mexico “expeditiously in the custody of U.S. marshals,” Judge Carol Bagley Amon said. He could not challenge his removal or seek asylum in the United States
Outside the Brooklyn courthouse, defense attorney Edward Sapone said he expects Cienfuegos to be returned to Mexico on Wednesday with a confiscated cell phone and computer tablet at the time of his arrest, sent to him later by his lawyers. He noted that Cienfuegos pleaded not guilty and planned to prove his innocence.
“We are very blessed for justice today,” Sapone said as people protesting his client’s release carried placards and chanted nearby.
Cienfuegos spoke little in court, answering several questions from the judge through an interpreter.
Barr said in a statement Tuesday that the Justice Department would close its case so that Cienfuegos, who was arrested in Los Angeles last month, could be investigated under Mexican law.
“I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the government’s position,” Amon said, accepting the request to close the case.
In a joint statement with Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Hertz, Manero Barr said the US Department of Justice had decided to end the US case in recognition of “the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the US and in the interest of the demonstration, one front of us.” against all forms of crime. “
The Justice Department said it had provided Mexico with evidence gathered in the case.
Lopez Obrador has entrusted the Mexican army and navy with a wider range of tasks than most other previous Mexican presidents and is under pressure to win the return of Cienfuegos.
The old ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, to which Pena Nieto belongs, had previously called on the Mexican government to pay Cienfuegos’ legal fees, and on Tuesday celebrated the decision to drop the charges. Party leader Alejandro Moreno wrote on his Twitter account that the party “strongly supports General Salvador Cienfuegos. … We must all greet each other and always support our armed forces. “
On Tuesday, Ebrard denied the decision was linked to the US election or Lopez Obrador’s failure to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden. Ebrard said he spoke with Bar on October 26, a week before the US election.
Mike Vigil, a former head of the International Drug Enforcement Administration’s international operations, said the decision was “nothing more than a gift, a huge gift” from President Donald Trump to Lopez Obrador, probably given as a service to previous immigration assistance.
He said Cienfuegos’ chances of being convicted in Mexico were “slim”, noting the former Mexican defense minister’s political ties and the country’s idolatry in the military.
Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said any decision not to try Cienfuegos would further damage the already fragmented reputation of Mexico’s judiciary.
“No one who knows the Mexican judiciary really believes he will be tried in Mexico,” Hope said, adding that “the external commitment to the (Mexican) prosecutor’s office’s autonomy has always been a fabrication.”
Still, Hope said, the process could be an opportunity to reconsider Mexico’s traditional untouchable military status: “This is a lost opportunity to reformulate civil-military relations” in Mexico.
Obrador, who initially seemed to celebrate Cienfuegos’ arrest, denied on Wednesday that Mexican troops had pressured him to release the general.
Military analyst Juan Ibarola, who often reflects the views of the Mexican army, agreed that there was no pressure, but added: “I think it is very unlikely that the Mexican government will issue an arrest warrant.”
Sapone said defense attorneys always knew there would be “dismissal or some excuse.”
He added that his client’s plans “in the near future are to stay with his family as a free man.”