Authorities in Mexico said they will not pursue criminal charges against a former defense minister who US prosecutors accused of colluding with organized crime groups to traffic drugs, only for them to drop the case when security ties between the two countries showed signs of fraying.
Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office announced in a January 14 press release that it had cleared General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who served as Mexico’s defense minister under former President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), of all criminal allegations made against him by US prosecutors.
In the statement, prosecutors said that evidence showed Cienfuegos “never had any encounter with the members of the criminal organization investigated by US authorities, nor did he maintain any communication with them, nor did he carry out acts tending to protect or help said individuals."
The former general was arrested in October 2020 in Los Angeles on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. US Prosecutors accused him of protecting the so-called H-2 Cartel, a breakaway faction of the Beltrán Leyva Organization, and allowing them to traffic thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States with impunity. Investigators even dubbed Cienfuegos as "El Padrino," or "the Godfather," describing wiretaps where cartel members identified him directly by name.
However, in an abrupt reversal the following month, US prosecutors dropped the charges against Cienfuegos, and he was sent back to Mexico. Prosecutors cited “important foreign policy considerations" in its decision, saying they would allow for Mexico to investigate Cienfuegos.
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Authorities in Mexico said a review of Cienfuegos' financial records during his time in office found no irregularities. But it did not acknowledge that the armed forces has its own bank -- Banjercito -- with its own set of regulations.
During his January 15 morning press conference, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador went a step further than the attorney general, alleging that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had “fabricated” the charges against Cienfuegos. “You can’t invent crimes,” he said.
President López Obrador said he has instructed Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard to make public the full case file sent to Mexican officials by the DEA.
A Justice Department spokesperson told InSight Crime in an email that the United States "reserves the right to recommence its investigation of Cienfuegos if the Government of Mexico fails to do so."
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Cienfuegos’ exoneration puts an exclamation point on a bizarre series of events that roiled the bilateral security relationship between Mexico and the United States -- and will certainly continue to test it for years to come.
Ultimately, it took Mexican authorities two months to clear the highest-ranking security official ever charged by the United States. DEA agents spent six years investigating Cienfuegos before he was indicted in August 2019, without ever notifying their Mexican counterparts.
"It’s unfortunate that the Attorney General's Office can exonerate Cienfuegos so easily and without a judge and a jury evaluating the evidence," said Lilian Chapa Koloffon, senior researcher at the World Justice Project, an international civil society organization focused on the rule of law.
The backlash to Cienfuegos' arrest was swift. Some US officials criticized it as unnecessary, saying it jeopardized US-Mexico relations. Other Mexican officials -- especially within the armed forces -- saw it as an affront to Mexican sovereignty. President López Obrador used the arrest to push through reforms that limit the power and restrict the operations of foreign law enforcement agents in the country, including the DEA.
Cienfuegos’ quick exoneration indicates the increasing power of the armed forces in President López Obrador's administration, as he frequently turns to the military to combat organized crime, construct infrastructure and protect ports, among other duties.
It also calls into question Mexico's ability to investigate the military, particularly high-profile probes into alleged misconduct by troops, such as in the Ayotzinapa and Tlatlaya cases.
"The time that this so-called investigation took is going to keep raising questions, and that’s unavoidable," said Siria Gastelum, resilience director at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, an international non-governmental organization. "In reality, this type of investigation would take time, and in order to be fully accepted, there would be demands for a level of transparency that we did not see at all," she added.
The military in Mexico has a long history of operating with impunity. Data obtained by Animal Político showed that less than one percent of cases of alleged torture and forced disappearance by the armed forces came before a judge between 2015 and 2019. What’s more, Animal Político found the Defense Ministry has quietly paid out millions of dollars as part of signed agreements with confidentiality clauses to ensure the silence of the families of at least 187 people killed or injured in operations linked to the country’s militarized crackdown on organized crime groups over the last 10 years.
US prosecutors said Cienfuegos' release was done in the interest of demonstrating the Mexican and US governments' "united front against all forms of criminality," but his exoneration casts serious doubt on that assertion.
In a strange twist, though, it may provide a much-needed reset when it comes to the two countries' joint-strategy to combat organized crime -- one that has failed to make meaningful gains over the last decade.