Bill Robles / AP
The US Department of Justice is seeking to drop charges against a former Mexican Secretary of Defense, the highest-ranking Mexican official ever arrested for alleged drug trafficking, so that he can “be investigated and, if appropriate, charged under Mexican law.” .
Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, nicknamed the Godfather, was accused of working on behalf of one of the deadliest cartels in Mexico, known as the H-2. Authorities say Cienfuegos took bribes to protect the cartel and its leaders by informing them of impending military action against them. An indictment in New York’s Eastern District also alleges that he used troops to launch operations against a rival cartel.
The 72-year-old man was detained on October 15 at the Los Angeles International Airport and charged with conspiracy to manufacture, import and distribute drugs in the United States and money laundering.
But on Tuesday, Attorney General William Barr partnered with Mexico’s Attorney General Alejandro Hertz Manero in announcing the unusual decision to remand Cienfuegos in custody.
Officials explained that the move came “under the Evidence-Sharing Treaty”, saying the Justice Department had provided Mexico with evidence against Cienfuegos and would co-operate “in support of the Mexican authorities’ investigation”.
The former general retired earlier this year after a long career in the Mexican army. His last post was as defense minister under former President Enrique Pena Nieto.
U.S. court documents describe the extent of the alleged crimes of Cienfuegos on behalf of the H-2 cartel, an extremely violent drug trafficking organization. The former general is believed to have facilitated the trafficking of “thousands of pounds of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana in the United States, including New York.”
“In exchange for bribery payments, he allowed the H-2 cartel – a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder – to operate with impunity in Mexico,” the documents said.
His arrest sparked waves among Mexico’s political elite, including the president, as well as armed forces leaders who saw him as a sign of corruption at the country’s highest levels of powerful leaders.
Following the arrest of Cienfuegos, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said it was unfortunate that someone so high in the Mexican government had been accused of links to drug traffickers. The president added that his administration was trying to understand how deep the corruption was.
But he later expressed outrage at the unilateral move by the United States to arrest the former senior official, saying it was a violation of national sovereignty.
As NPR reports:
“Last year, US officials arrested former President Felipe Calderon’s chief of public security and charged him with drug trafficking. Calderon put the Mexican military at the forefront of the country’s crackdown on cartels more than a decade ago. This military role continued in the next administration. with former Defense Minister Cienfuegos at the helm. “
Lopez Obrador said he continued to have full confidence in his army, including army and navy leaders who served under Cienfuegos.
Mexico’s foreign minister has not said whether Cienfuegos, who remains in custody in the United States, will be charged in his homeland, but said an investigation has been launched based on evidence shared by US prosecutors.
Mexico’s attorney general did not respond to calls for comment.