Mexico Won't Charge Former Top General Accused of Drug Trafficking by DEA

In response, the U.S. signalled it may again pursue efforts to make Cienfuegos see justice in the U.S.
January 15, 2021, 4:16pm
GettyImagMexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos. es-521574880
Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos. RONALDO SCHEMIDT, AFP via Getty Images.

MEXICO CITY - Mexico’s Attorney General’s office has cleared the country’s former top military official of drug trafficking allegations levied against him by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

U.S. officials originally arrested General Salvador Cienfuegos in October in Los Angeles and accused him of working with organized crime to smuggle drugs into the U.S. A detention memo put together by U.S. prosecutors claimed that the general was known in the criminal underworld as “El Padrino,” or “the Godfather.”

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The fallout of Cienfuegos’ arrest led to one of the strangest moments of international diplomacy in modern history between the two nations when the Mexican government allegedly threatened to place its own restrictions on U.S. law enforcement working in Mexico if Cienfuegos was not returned home to face charges. 

US Suddenly Decides Not to Prosecute Top Mexican General for Narco-Corruption

The U.S. caved, dropped the charges, and sent the general back to Mexico in November. But although Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard stated at that time that it would “be almost suicidal” for Mexico not to charge Cienfuegos, that’s exactly what they just did.

On January 14, Mexico’s Attorney General’s office made the announcement that there were no charges against Cienfuegos, and today President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addressed the issue at his morning news conference, reiterating the conclusion that Cienfuegos “did not hold a meeting or communication with any criminal group.”

Then he took it a step further, claiming that the DEA “fabricated” the accusations.

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“We must end impunity and corruption, but you also can’t have retaliation, vengeance,” said López Obrador. “And you cannot invent crimes.”

But authorities in the United States, reacting to the news that Cienfuegos was off the hook in Mexico, left the door open to renewing efforts to see him face justice in the U.S. “The United States reserves the right to recommence its prosecution of Cienfuegos if the government of Mexico fails to do so,” said Nicole Navas Oxman, the acting deputy director of public affairs for the Department of Justice.

In a damning detention memo released after Cienfuegos’ arrest in October, U.S. authorities claimed to have proof that Cienfuegos helped the little-known H-2 Cartel to move "thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States" between 2015 and 2017 by "ensuring that military operations were not conducted against the H-2 Cartel" and "initiating military operations against its rival drug trafficking organizations."

The arrest shocked the Mexican government, which only learned of the investigation a few weeks before his arrest. Behind the scenes, they quickly began pressuring the U.S. to send the general back to Mexico, along with the evidence, so that he could face justice at home. The government vowed to fully investigate the allegations and analyze the evidence.

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At the time, a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn told Judge Carol Bagley Amon that the decision to drop the charges against Cienfuegos was made by Attorney General William Barr.

“I have no reason to doubt the government's determination that Mexican prosecuting authorities sincerely wish to pursue an investigation and possible prosecution of this defendant,” said Bagley Amon. “There’s no suggestion this application is being made in bad faith, or that accepting the government’s reasoning, that it is against the public interest.”

After Cienfuegos arrived in Mexico, he was reportedly presented with the evidence and allowed to provide his own to defend himself. Although neither the general’s defense, nor the U.S. evidence, has been seen by the public, the Mexican government apparently accepted Cienfuegos version of events and declared that he will not face criminal charges.

Few were surprised at this week’s news.

A U.S. law enforcement official close to the case spoke to VICE World News on the condition of anonymity about the dropping of charges, and said: “I’m not really that disappointed. I'd resigned myself to this being the end result. It's just not that surprising. Mexico is a narco state.”