Weeks after arresting Mexico’s former defence minister on drug trafficking charges, the United States has agreed to return General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda to Mexico, a retreat from incendiary charges that sent a shock through US-Mexico relations.
The extraordinary decision to release Cienfuegos after a long-term, top-secret US investigation allegedly revealed his ties to Mexico’s criminal underworld is an unexpected twist in one of the highest-profile drug-trafficking cases in recent decades. US Justice Department officials depicted Cienfuegos’s arrest as a window into dramatic institutional corruption in Mexico. Mexican officials have not committed to trying him upon his return.
The decision is sure to be greeted as a triumph in Mexico, where the government considered Cienfuegos’s arrest a violation of sovereignty. But it raises questions about the trade-off between US probes into Mexican drug trafficking and attempts to maintain a delicate bilateral relationship.
“In recognition of the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States, and in the interests of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality, the United States Department of Justice has made the decision to seek dismissal of the US criminal charges against former Secretary Cienfuegos, so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law,” Attorney General William Barr and Alejandro Gertz Manero, his Mexican counterpart, said in a news release.
US prosecutors asked to dismiss the case in such a way that it could be filed again, and they asserted, as they have previously, that the evidence is “strong.” They requested the judge not formally grant their request until Cienfuegos could be transported to Mexico by US Marshals.
Cienfuegos was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on October 15. Prosecutors said he assisted the drug-trafficking cartel H-2 when he was defense minister from 2012 to 2018. Cienfuegos has pleaded not guilty. The charges are now expected to be dropped by a US federal judge Wednesday morning.
“At the request of the Fiscalía General de la República, the United States Department of Justice, under the Treaty that governs the sharing of evidence, has provided Mexico evidence in this case and commits to continued cooperation, within that framework, to support the investigation by Mexican authorities,” Barr and Gertz Manero said.
The decision appeared to be an attempt to repair a growing breach in relations over Cienfuegos’s arrest. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador suggested the arrest might have been made “for political or other reasons” and accused the Drug Enforcement Administration of “meddling.
López Obrador has relied heavily on the military – a revered institution across much of the country – for a wide range of tasks, including fighting drug trafficking, building hospitals and more. In arresting Cienfuegos, the United States upset a relationship that has been battered and patched up several times during the course of the Trump administration.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico City, said that if the United States hadn’t agreed to drop the charges against Cienfuegos, “the army would have held off on any kind of cooperation with the U.S. for a decade.
US officials say that Cienfuegos was swept up in an investigation of the H-2 cartel, an offshoot of the Beltrán Leyva crime organization that operated mainly in the northeastern state of Nayarit. He was accused of using the military to go after the gang’s rivals while protecting its own drug shipments, and helping H-2 to ship thousands of kilos of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines to the United States.
It’s not clear that Mexico has done much to probe possible ties between Cienfuegos and drug traffickers. On Ocober 21, López Obrador indicated growing concern in Mexico about the Cienfuegos case. “Show us those operations of complicity if they have the proof,” he said. He said Mexico would open its own investigation only if it received credible evidence of wrongdoing. “We can’t allow someone to be judged only for political or other reasons if there is no proof.
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