The U.S. government moved Tuesday to drop drug trafficking and money-laundering charges against a former Mexican defense secretary, a stunning turnaround in a case that had deeply angered Mexican authorities.
The surprise move came a month after retired general Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested Oct. 15 at Los Angeles International Airport.
In a joint statement, Atty. Gen. William Barr and his Mexican counterpart, Alejandro Gertz Manero, said that the U.S. Justice Department would ask a judge to dismiss the case and that Cienfuegos would face justice in Mexico instead.
“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 U.S. Department of Justice has made the decision to seek dismissal of the U.S. criminal charges against former Secretary Cienfuegos, so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law,” the joint statement said.
In court papers unsealed Tuesday, the U.S. Dept. of Justice said that "sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government's interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant."
The decision flies in the face of long-standing U.S. mistrust of the Mexican justice system and deep skepticism about its ability to prosecute high-level corruption.
"You have one of the main protectors of drug trafficking, corruption and violence in Mexico and he's going to get kicked across the line, and his chances of being prosecuted in Mexico are slim to none," said Mike Vigil, former chief of foreign operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Cienfuegos — who served as defense secretary from 2012 to 2018 — has denied and involvement with drug trafficking, pleading not guilty at his arraignment this month.
Vigil suggested that the Trump administration was rewarding Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December 2018, for his cooperation on a range of issues, including help thwarting U.S.-bound migrants.
López Obrador is also among the few world leaders who has yet to congratulate Democrat Joe Biden on his victory in this month's presidential elections.
"Donald Trump wants to reward López Obrador for doing the things that Donald Trump wanted him to do," Vigil said. " ... I have never seen anything occur like this in my lifetime."
A Justice Department official said Trump did not lean on Barr to drop the charges. "It wasn't a Trump thing," the official said.
In this case, several Justice Dept. officials said, Barr concluded that the international trouble sparked by prosecuting Cienfuegos was not worth harming Mexican cooperation in other cases.
A federal grand jury indicted Cienfuegos last year after a lengthy investigation, but the indictment was kept secret until Cienfuegos was arrested. At the time, the Mexican president said no charges were pending in Mexico against him and that he was not under investigation there.
The arrest sent tremors through Mexico’s leadership circles and jolted the country’s military establishment, a key ally of López Obrador. Mexican authorities say they were kept in the dark about the investigation of Cienfuegos and didn’t learn of the charges until he was arrested.
Mexico sent a formal note of protest to the U.S. government about the arrest, a rare instance in which the administration of López Obrador has challenged the Trump administration.
Mexico's foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, said he expressed Mexico's discontent with the arrest directly to U.S. Atty. Gen. Barr, and had spoken with Barr twice about the matter.
Ebrard said that Mexico has opened its own investigation of Cienfuegos and had received a 743-page dossier on the case from Timothy Shea, acting director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Ebrard denied that the dropped charges had anything to do with the U.S. elections.
"We do not see it as the path to impunity but as an act of respect for Mexico and the Mexican armed forces," he said of the arrangement.
Cienfuegos, 72, a more than 50-year veteran of the Mexican military, was in federal custody in New York.
A hearing was scheduled in the case for Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
Prosecutors prepared paperwork for U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon to sign directing that the case be dismissed "without prejudice," and that the U.S. Marshals Service transport Cienfuegos back to Mexico.
U.S. prosecutors appeared to have amassed a strong case against Cienfuegos, who was accused of helping a Mexican drug cartel smuggle “thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana” into the United States, according to court documents. Among other things, he was accused of aiding in maritime smuggling of drugs.
Cienfuegos was allegedly in cahoots with the H-2 drug gang, a spinoff of Mexico's Beltrán-Leyva cartel, a once-powerful mob that has since split into various factions. Prosecutors said his nickname was "El Padrino," or the Godfather.
Using informants from their many cases against Mexican cartels, U.S. prosecutors have pursued charges against a number of former high-ranking Mexican officials.
Still facing trial in New York is Genaro García Luna, who served as security chief in the administration of President Felipe Calderón from 2006 to 2012.
Mexico has not protested the prosecution of García Luna, who allegedly took millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa cartel formerly headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Guzmán is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.
López Obrador has called García Luna’s arrest a symbol of how Mexico became a “narco state” during the administration of Calderón, a political rival.
In Mexico, the U.S. reversal was met with bafflement.
It was “highly unlikely" that Cienfuegos will ever be tried in Mexico, said Alejandro Hope, a Mexico-based security analyst.
He suggested that López Obrador’s administration pushed for the deal under pressure from the Mexican military.
While running for office, López Obrador pledged to take a less confrontational approach to combating drug traffickers and vowed that soldiers who had been fighting a bloody, decade-long drug war would return to their barracks.
As president, however, he has done the opposite. Not only have soldiers continued to fight in the streets, he has expanded the army’s role in public security.
He chose the army to lead campaigns against illegal migration to the United States and he recently directed the armed forces to take control of the nation’s ports and customs operations.
Staff writers Del Wilbur and Eli Stokols in Washington and special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.