Authorities in Mexico will face one of their biggest anti-corruption tests yet after a bombshell deal was brokered with the United States to drop the federal drug charges that lead to the unprecedented arrest of the country’s former defense secretary.
Federal Judge Carol Amon granted the request to dismiss the case against Mexico’s former military chief, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, at a November 18 hearing. This followed a shocking November 17 announcement from US Attorney General William Barr and Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero that prosecutors were seeking to withdraw the charges.
“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 US 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,” the two top prosecutors said.
A motion filed November 17 by US Attorney Seth DuCharme clarified that "the United States … determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant."
However, the New York Times and Vice News reported that Mexican officials threatened to boot the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from the country and limit anti-drug cooperation if the case was not dismissed.
Still, DuCharme said during the November 18 hearing that his office “stands behind” the case and had “no concern” with it, but that the decision came from the highest levels of the Justice Department and Attorney General Barr.
Cienfuegos’ mid-October arrest at Los Angeles’ international airport sent shockwaves through both the United States and Mexico, with the latter’s government being blindsided by the capture and unaware of the investigation into the former top security official.
US prosecutors charged Cienfuegos with three counts of drug conspiracy and one count of money laundering in an August 2019 indictment that was made public at the time of his arrest. Authorities said he colluded with a breakaway faction of the Beltrán Leyva Organization, which law enforcement called the H-2 Cartel, and helped them “operate with impunity in Mexico” between 2015 and 2017 in exchange for bribes.
Not only that, the former defense secretary, whom authorities dubbed “El Padrino,” or the “Godfather,” was accused of protecting the group from law enforcement scrutiny, securing safe transport for drug shipments and notifying its members of military operations, among other crimes.
Attorney General Barr said his office is cooperating with its Mexican counterparts and has already shared evidence collected as part of the case. Cienfuegos will now be sent back to Mexico a free man.
InSight Crime Analysis
The US government’s decision to dismiss the charges against Cienfuegos is virtually unprecedented. It raises serious questions as to how the United States went from carrying out a secretive multi-year probe behind the backs of Mexican authorities to now trusting them enough to conduct their own investigation.
Mike Vigil, the DEA's former head of international operations, told InSight Crime he had “never seen anything like this” in his 31-year law enforcement career.
Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said officials are now investigating the former general, but Cienfuegos has yet to be formally charged at home, and only came under investigation after his unexpected arrest north of the border. At the time, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said no investigation against him existed in Mexico.
It’s highly unlikely the US Justice Department would have filed such explosive charges against Cienfuegos if they didn’t feel they could support them. In fact, US Attorney DuCharme reiterated that the evidence in the case is “strong” in the November 17 court filing and again during the November 18 hearing.
In court documents, US prosecutors cited “thousands of [intercepted] Blackberry Messenger communications” among the evidence backing up the allegations that Cienfuegos used his public position to protect the so-called H2 Cartel. Prosecutors also said they had communications where Cienfuegos is “identified by name, title and photograph as the Mexican government official assisting” the powerful organized crime group.
However, DuCharme said that the charges were ultimately dropped "as a matter of foreign policy” so that “Mexico could proceed first with investigating and potentially prosecuting the defendant under Mexican law for the alleged conduct at issue, which occurred in Mexico."
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Security analyst Alejandro Hope told InSight Crime the dropped charges show “recognition from the United States that the Army is the prime institutional actor in Mexico in everything connected to organized crime, and that the United States doesn’t want to antagonize them.”
Hope added that if the case had moved forward, US cooperation with Mexico’s military, which has been at the heart of the fight against organized crime for over a decade, would have “become much more difficult for some time.”
Indeed, the initial arrest had soured the anti-drug alliance and broader bilateral cooperation between the two nations. Some former US officials even went so far as to say that maintaining strong US-Mexico relations was more important than such a high-profile arrest.
Now, Cienfuegos will take his chances in Mexico, where authorities have long struggled to successfully prosecute high-level officials -- as well as notorious drug traffickers -- accused of corruption, colluding with criminal groups and grave human rights abuses, among other crimes.
A number of police officers and local government officials have evaded capture in Mexico only to be charged and prosecuted by the US government. To be sure, Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s secretary of public security from 2006 to 2012, is currently facing drug charges in the United States after his December 2019 arrest. López Obrador responded to his detention by calling the administration of former President Felipe Calderón a “narco-government.”
The justice system under President López Obrador in Mexico, where the impunity rate is consistently one of the highest in Latin America, will now be put to the test to determine whether or not the highest echelons of the Mexican military will remain untouchable.
“I think Mexico will give the appearance that they’re looking into the matter, but the chances of Cienfuegos being prosecuted successfully are slim to none,” Vigil said.