Mexico says trust vital after US drops case against ex-army chief

The case prompted the government to threaten a review of agreements allowing US agents to operate in Mexico.

A federal judge granted a US government request to drop drug corruption charges against Salvador Cienfuegos to allow Mexican officials to investigate him [File: Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo]

A US federal judge granted the US government’s request to dismiss without prejudice its criminal indictment against Salvador Cienfuegos, former Mexican defence minister, on Wednesday, a move Mexico said would restore trust in severely strained security cooperation ties.

US District Judge Carol Bagley Amon in Brooklyn, New York was considering the request after Tuesday’s abrupt announcement by US Attorney General William Barr and Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero that the US case would end.

Cienfuegos, 72, had served as Mexico’s defence minister from 2012 to 2018 under former President Enrique Pena Nieto, and the case prompted the current government to threaten a review of agreements allowing US agents to operate in Mexico.

Mexico’s Defence Secretary General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda standing alongside former US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during a reception ceremony in Mexico City [File: Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo]

Cienfuegos was arrested last month at the Los Angeles International Airport, becoming the first top Mexican military official taken into US custody for drug-related corruption at home, and pleaded not guilty to drug and money laundering conspiracy charges.

But US prosecutors said “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations” now outweighed the US government’s interest in continuing to prosecute Cienfuegos, and therefore their case against him should be dismissed.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the arrest had damaged the trust needed for bilateral cooperation fighting drug gangs. He celebrated the decision to drop the case and said it laid a foundation for future cooperation.

The prosecutors also said Cienfuegos agreed to return to Mexico if the US charges were dropped.

He has not been charged in Mexico and faces no arrest warrant there. The Mexican government said its case was based entirely on evidence provided by the US.

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Salvador Cienfuegos will return to Mexico as a free man [Edgard Garrido/Reuters]

Cienfuegos will return to Mexico as a free man, Ebrard said, adding that the attorney general’s office was studying the US evidence and would decide next steps.

US prosecutors accused Cienfuegos of abusing the power of his office to protect a faction of the Beltran-Leyva cartel while ordering operations against rival gangs.

While in office, Cienfuegos had worked closely with the US counterparts on cross-border criminal matters and was a leading Mexican figure fighting that country’s drug war.

His arrest, which Mexico had not been warned about, shocked Mexico’s security establishment, where Cienfuegos has maintained close ties.

The Mexican president questioned the work of US Drug Enforcement Administration agents in the country, saying they had been close to Salvador Cienfuegos for years [File: Carlos Jasso/Reuters]

Following the arrest, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador questioned the work of US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in the country, saying they had been close to Cienfuegos for years.

The case set off a flurry of frantic calls between Barr, DEA Acting Administrator Timothy Shea, and Mexican officials to calm tensions.

In a statement on Tuesday, Barr and Gertz said the US Department of Justice provided evidence it has gathered to Mexican authorities and would support their investigation.

Cienfuegos’s arrest came 10 months after the US prosecutors charged Mexico’s former top public security chief, Genaro Garcia Luna, with taking bribes to protect the Sinaloa drug cartel once run by drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Garcia Luna has pleaded not guilty.

Source: Reuters