Mexico has the world’s fourth-highest death toll from the virus behind the United States, Brazil and India.
Mexican officials said on Thursday that a US agreement to return a former defence chief accused of aiding drug traffickers will apply to any official accused of such corruption, and they will no longer be tried in the United States.
“Whoever is culpable according to our laws will be tried, judged and if applicable, sentenced in Mexico, and not in other countries, and that is the basis which has been encouraged with this agreement,” said Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard. “That is what has been discussed, what has been agreed and what has been maintained with US authorities.
Ebrard’s statement was not clear on whether Mexico would continue extraditing accused drug traffickers to face charges in US courts, as it has done often in the past, or whether he was only referring to officials accused of collaborating with drug gangs.
On Tuesday, the US Department of Justice requested the dismissal of drug trafficking and money laundering charges against ex-Defence Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos so that he be returned to Mexico in the interest of maintaining cross-border cooperation.
US officials themselves have given no hint that the agreement went beyond the Cienfuegos case.
The agreement came after reports that Mexico had threatened to expel the Drug Enforcement Administration’s regional director and agents.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador denied that on Thursday, saying, “We didn’t threaten anybody. All we did was express our disagreement.
“We did not threaten to expel the agents. We said we want to be informed and for the cooperation agreements to be respected,” Lopez Obrador said.
Lopez Obrador also said of the case: “I think it is an injustice for innocent people to be put on trial.”
Cienfuegos was returned to Mexico on Wednesday and was promptly released.
Ebrard said that the investigation into Cienfuegos would be “worthy of Mexico’s prestige and dignity”. But the entire process of notifying Cienfuegos of the investigation and processing him back into the country took only about a half-hour, far less time than the average traveller spends in customs and immigration.
Ebrard appeared to be aware of the damage to Mexico’s reputation if Mexican prosecutors, as many expect, fail to bring their own charges against Cienfuegos.
“It would be very costly for Mexico, to have decided to have this conversation with the United States, to achieve the dropping of charges against a former cabinet secretary for the first time in history … for him to be returned to Mexico, and then later do nothing,” Ebrard said. “That would be almost suicidal.”
The full scope of Mexico’s pressure was not clear and officials were vague about what led them to drop charges in a case they had celebrated as a significant breakthrough just last month, when federal agents arrested the retired general in Los Angeles.
Two officials, one Mexican and one American, said Mexico’s tactics involved threatening to expel the Drug Enforcement Administration’s regional director and agents unless the US dropped the case. But they said that was only part of the negotiation. They would not elaborate.
The officials asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak publicly about the case.
A judge in New York City approved the dismissal of charges on Wednesday, capping a lightning-fast turnaround in a case that drew loud protests from top officials in Mexico and threatened to damage the delicate relationship that enables investigators in both countries to pursue drug kingpins together.
Mexico depicted the case as a victory for the country’s sovereignty and its demand to be treated as an equal partner by the US, a striking position, given that most think that Mexico’s court system – and corrupt officials – are the weak links in the country’s fight against drug trafficking.
Cienfuegos, 72, was secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 2019. He was accused of conspiring with the H-2 cartel in Mexico to smuggle thousands of kilos of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while he was defence secretary from 2012 to 2018.
Prosecutors said intercepted messages showed that Cienfuegos accepted bribes in exchange for ensuring the military did not take action against the cartel and that operations were initiated against its rivals. He was also accused of introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.
Mexican officials complained that the US failed to share evidence against Cienfuegos and that his arrest came as a surprise. It also caused alarm within Mexico’s military, which has played a crucial role in operations against drug cartels.