US prosecutors are to drop drug charges against former Mexican secretary of national defense Salvador Cienfuegos and turn over the investigation to Mexico, saying “sensitive” foreign policy considerations outweighed the interest in pressing the case.
The surprise decision to dismiss the charges in the politically explosive case was announced in a joint statement on Tuesday from the US Department of Justice and Mexican Attorney General’s office.
“The United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant,” prosecutors from the US Eastern District of New York said in a court document.
US authorities said the 72-year-old ex-general, accused of using his power to protect a faction of the Beltran-Leyva drugs cartel in Mexico while ordering operations against its rivals, had agreed to voluntarily return to Mexico if the US case against him was thrown out.
Cienfuegos, who served as head of the military and was former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto’s top defense official from 2012 to 2018, pleaded not guilty earlier this month to the drug trafficking and money laundering conspiracy charges following his last month’s arrest at Los Angeles International Airport.
After a hearing yesterday in a Brooklyn federal court, where the judge was expected to sign off on the prosecutors’ request, Cienfuegos would likely be transported back to Mexico in the custody of a US Marshal, the court documents show.
“Tomorrow justice will be done,” Cienfuegos’ US-based attorney Edward Sapone said in a brief statement.
The arrest of Cienfuegos, who for years worked closely with US counterparts on cross-border criminal matters and was a leading figure in Mexico’s drug war, put a severe strain on security ties between the two countries.
The Mexican government was not forewarned of the investigation or arrest, which angered Mexican sensitivities at the highest level. His arrest shocked Mexico’s security establishment, given his close ties to a range of current senior officials.
In retaliation, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador publicly threatened to review cooperation agreements that establish how US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents operate in the country.
The threats set off a flurry of frantic calls between US Attorney General William Barr, DEA Acting Administrator Timothy Shea and Mexican officials seeking to calm tensions.
In remarks to reporters shortly after the announcement, Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard described the dropping of the case as unprecedented, and a sign of respect for Mexico’s sovereignty and military.
The decision meant that security cooperation between the two nations could proceed, Ebrard said.
The DEA-led case against Cienfuegos appears to have been a tightly guarded secret even among US agencies — with a Pentagon think tank honoring him for his “extraordinary” contributions to the bilateral military relationship while the investigation was ongoing in 2018.
“If I had to guess, it is likely that the Pentagon was up in arms with the DEA going solo,” former Mexican ambassador to the US Arturo Sarukhan said.
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