Acting on a tip, more than 80 state, federal officials dug through 52 sites before making the discovery.
The United States will drop drug trafficking and money laundering charges against former Mexican Defence Secretary General Salvador Cienfuegos and turn the investigation over to Mexico, saying “sensitive” foreign policy considerations outweighed the interest in pressing the case.
US Attorney General William Barr and his Mexican counterpart Alejandro Gertz Manero announced the surprise decision in a joint statement on Tuesday.
“The United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant,” prosecutors from the US Eastern District of New York said in a court document that was unsealed on Tuesday.
US authorities said the 72-year-old former general, accused of using his power to protect a faction of the Beltran-Leyva drugs cartel in Mexico while ordering operations against its rivals, had agreed to voluntarily return to Mexico if the US case against him was thrown out.
Cienfuegos, who served as head of the military and was former President Enrique Pena Nieto’s top defence official from 2012 until 2018, pleaded not guilty earlier this month to the charges following his October arrest at Los Angeles airport.
“In the interests demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality, the US Department of Justice has made the decision to seek dismissal of US criminal charges against former secretary Cienfuegos so that he may be investigated, and, if appropriate, charged under Mexican law,” the attorney generals’ joint statement said.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted that under an agreement between the offices of the Mexican and US attorney generals, Cienfuegos would “be returned to Mexico to be prosecuted here if agreed by the judge in the case.”
The former defence chief is the highest-ranking former cabinet official arrested since the top Mexican security official Genaro Garcia Luna was detained in Texas in 2019.
Under Cienfuegos, the Mexican army was accused of frequent human rights abuses, but that was also the case with both his predecessors and his successor in the post. The worst scandal during Cienfuegos’s tenure involved the June 2014 army killings of 22 suspects in a grain warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya.
While some died in an initial shootout with the army patrol – in which one soldier was wounded – a human rights investigation later found that at least eight and perhaps as many as 12 suspects were executed after they surrendered.
In the joint statement Barr said the decision to drop the US case was also in recognition “of the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States”.
The Justice Department said it has provided Mexico with evidence collected in the case.
“Our two countries remain committed to cooperation on this matter, as well as all our bilateral law enforcement cooperation. As the decision today reflects, we are stronger when we work together and respect the sovereignty of our nations and their institutions”, the statement said.
After a hearing on Wednesday in a Brooklyn federal court, where the judge is expected to sign off on the prosecutors’ request, Cienfuegos is expected to be transported back to Mexico in the custody of a US Marshal, according to the court documents.
The arrest of Cienfuegos, who for years worked closely with US counterparts on highly sensitive cross-border criminal matters, put a severe strain on security ties between the two countries.
The Mexican government was not warned of the investigation or arrest.
In retaliation, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador publicly threatened to review cooperation agreements that establish how US Drug Enforcement Administration agents operate in the country.
In remarks to reporters shortly after the announcement, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard described the US decision to drop the case as unprecedented and a sign of respect for both Mexican sovereignty as well as the Mexican military.
Ebrard added that the decision meant that security cooperation between the two nations could proceed.