In an unprecedented step, the United States Justice Department suddenly moved Tuesday to drop drug trafficking charges against Mexico’s former top military official, Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who was arrested a month ago at Los Angeles International Airport while he was on vacation with his family.
The abrupt U-turn on the charges against Cienfuegos, who served as Mexico’s Secretary of Defense from 2012 to 2018, is unequalled in U.S.-Mexico relations.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who relies on the military to combat drug cartels in the country, was not informed in advance of the U.S. plan to arrest Cienfuegos, and he and other top Mexican officials were furious about the case, Mexican government sources told VICE World News.
The charges against Cienfuegos were dropped Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before he was scheduled to make his first appearance before the U.S. federal judge presiding over his case.
In a bombshell joint statement, U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero said Cienfuegos would be transferred back to Mexico.
“The decision to seek dismissal of the U.S. criminal charges against former Secretary Cienfuegos, so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law,” the statement said, noting that the Justice Department provided Mexico with evidence in the case.
Cienfuegos, who was indicted on four counts of drug conspiracy and money laundering, will be sent home to Mexico and handed over to the attorney general’s office, Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said at a Tuesday press conference. Mexican prosecutors are currently investigating, Ebrard said, but received evidence from the U.S. on November 11 and have not had time to conduct a review and file charges. Ebrard said he spoke personally with Attorney General Barr on October 26 to discuss the Cienfuegos case, and said the decision to drop the charges had nothing to do with the outcome of the U.S. election.
Cienfuegos had previously entered a plea of not guilty on November 5 before a magistrate judge and was scheduled to appear before Judge Carol Bagley Amon on Wednesday for a hearing to determine how his case would proceed in the coming months.
The hearing for Cienfuegos is still scheduled to proceed at 10 a.m. ET Wednesday, and Judge Bagley Amon has ordered the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme, to attend the proceedings in person.
The U.S. arrest of the former top Mexican military official, who led the country’s armed forces as recently as 2018, was already unprecedented. The decision to cut him loose is unheard-of. The U.S. government almost never loses in federal criminal proceedings, with 97% of cases ending in a guilty plea and fewer than 1% of defendants going to trial and winning their case.
The surprise announcement that the charges may be dropped is an even more shocking twist in Mexico and the United States’ bilateral telenovela-esque war on drugs. U.S. federal prosecutors say Cienfuegos was known by a shockingly cliché underworld pseudonym: El Padrino, or the Godfather. Many saw his arrest as further evidence that the U.S. had lost hope that Mexican authorities would ever police corruption at the highest levels of its military and police forces,
López Obrador railed against U.S. intervention on Mexican soil in a series of press conferences in the weeks that followed.
“It shouldn’t be allowed that foreigners intervene in issues that are only the business of Mexicans. It doesn’t respect our sovereignty,” López Obrador said of the Cienfuegos arrest during one of his morning press conferences.
Cienfuegos was arrested after a yearslong on-the-ground investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration south of the border, and the indictment against the former general says he “abused his public position'“ to “help the H-2 Cartel, an extremely violent Mexican drug trafficking organization, traffic thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States” in exchange for bribe payments. The charges also allege he protected the H-2 group from military actions, while simultaneously “initiating military operations against its rival drug trafficking organizations.”
The first indication that the case was poised to take an unusual turn came Tuesday afternoon, when Judge Amon Bagley filed a notice to federal prosecutors seeking additional information about docket entries that had been filed under seal. The judge asked for additional evidence to support keeping the records secret, which prosecutors did not provide. The records were subsequently ordered unsealed, and showed that prosecutors were moving to drop the charges against Cienfuegos.
Edward Sapone, the lead attorney representing Cienfuegos, said in a statement to VICE World News that his client is “a man who has done so much good for his government and his community.”
“The General has very strongly relied on the presumption of his innocence from the moment he was accused,” Sapone said. “Tomorrow will be a monumental day for justice in America. Tomorrow justice will prevail."
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which is handling the prosecution, declined to comment.
This story was updated with a comment from Gen. Cienfuegos attorney, Edward Sapone.