11/18/20 (written by rkuckertz) – In an abrupt and unexpected reversal, the United States Department of Justice has announced that it will drop all drug trafficking and money laundering charges against Former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. The announcement came as a shock after a months-long investigation led to the secret indictment and subsequent arrest of Cienfuegos by U.S. officials.
The former defense minister (2012-2018) was arrested in Los Angeles on October 15, 2020 after he was indicted on various drug trafficking and money laundering counts, including conspiracy to import and distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana. The arrest shocked the Mexican public, as Cienfuegos is the first high-ranking Mexican military official to be arrested in the United States in connection with organized crime. The evidence against him pointed to his involvement with the H-2 cartel in exchange for bribes. Blackberry messages obtained by U.S. investigators detailed these alleged crimes, which included facilitating drug shipments into the United States and introducing cartel members to officials willing to accept bribes. Following his arrest, the former security official was transferred to a New York detention facility where he awaited trial in New York’s Eastern District.
However, in a joint statement released on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr and his Mexican counterpart, Alejandro Gertz Manero, announced the planned dismissal of all charges against Cienfuegos. The attorneys general explained that the decision represented “a strong law enforcement partnership” between the two countries and demonstrated a “united front against all forms of criminality.”
U.S. prosecutors submitted an initial request on Monday before District Court Judge Carol Amon calling for the dismissal of charges. Prosecutors cited “sensitive” foreign policy considerations that outweighed U.S. interests in continuing to press charges against Cienfuegos. While Cienfuegos was scheduled for an initial hearing this Wednesday, it is anticipated that the official request to drop all charges will be granted during his court appearance.
Why Drop Charges?
According to The Washington Post, it appears that the decision was made in an attempt to repair a breach of trust caused by Cienfuegos’ arrest–a move that U.S. officials kept secret from Mexican authorities. Following the arrest, Mexico submitted a formal note of protest to the U.S. Department of Justice. Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard also expressed the country’s disapproval directly to Attorney General Barr on two occasions over the past month. Several U.S. officials agreed that the unilateral approach to Cienfuegos’ arrest was misguided. For instance, retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, the former head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the move “very odd,” adding that he would have expected Mexican authorities to be informed prior to the arrest.
Some Mexican security experts believe that had the United States not returned Cienfuegos, the Mexican army would have ceased all bilateral cooperation on counter-drug and security operations. Similarly, prosecutors in the U.S. attorney general’s office in the Eastern District of New York speculate that the dismissal of charges can be attributed to threats to limit the role of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Mexico. Ebrard seemed to confirm these notions, stating that bilateral cooperation against drug trafficking would continue, but only if the United States respected Mexico’s sovereignty.
Still, the decision to drop charges against Cienfuegos is unprecedented. Mike Vigil, the former DEA chief of foreign operations, told The Los Angeles Times that he “…had never seen anything like this occur in [his] lifetime.” He also expressed doubt that Mexican authorities would fulfill their commitment to prosecuting Cienfuegos, adding that he considers the likelihood of this “slim to none.” While the joint statement released by Barr and Gertz Manero noted that the United States would provide evidence to Mexico for its ongoing investigation, Mexican judicial authorities have not made any official commitments to charge Cienfuegos.
Defending Mexico’s Military
While former defense minister Cienfuegos served under AMLO’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, President López Obrador has demonstrated approval of the military leader’s role in leading the armed forces through times of crisis and upheaval. During the transition between administrations, AMLO called Cienfuegos “an extraordinary general, a man of institutions.”
Under the current administration, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has gone to great lengths to defend the use of Mexico’s military in the fight against organized crime. A cornerstone of his anti-corruption platform, AMLO has sought to expand the role of the military in policing and security operations. Despite human rights concerns expressed by civil society and international organizations, Mexico’s citizenry seems to support López Obrador’s militarized tactics against organized crime. However, it remains to be seen if recent allegations of corruption against top military officials will sway public opinion. This may depend, in part, on how Mexico chooses to proceed with the investigation and case against Cienfuegos.
For his own part, AMLO has made sure to draw a stark contrast between military operations under Peña Nieto’s administration and his own. He has defended both the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) and the Mexican Navy (SEMAR) as institutions that have ensured the security of the Mexican public. Nonetheless, individuals directly connected to the former defense minister Cienfuegos continue to operate within Mexico’s security apparatus.
“US to Drop Drug Charges against Mexico’s Former Defence Chief.” Aljazeera. 18 November 2020.
Brooks, David. “EU retira cargos a general Cienfuegos; se le investigará en México.” La Jornada. 17 November 2020.
Ferri, Pablo. “EE UU retira los cargos al exsecretario de Defensa Salvador Cienfuegos para que sea juzgado en México.” El País. 17 November 2020.
“Joint Statement by Attorney General of the United States William P. Barr and Fiscalía General of Mexico Alejandro Gertz Manero.” The United States Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs. 17 November 2020.
Kuckertz, Rita E. “Former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda Arrested by U.S. Officials.” Justice in Mexico. 19 October 2020.
McDonnell, Patrick J. & Kate Linthicum. “In a Stunning Reversal, U.S. Drops Charges against Mexico’s ex-defense Chief.” The Los Angeles Times. 17 November 2020.
Mosso, Rubén & José Antonio Belmont. “A petición de la FGR, EU se desiste de cargos contra Salvador Cienfuegos.” Milenio. 17 November 2020.
Sieff, Kevin; Mary Beth Sheridan; & Matt Zapotosky. “U.S. Agrees to Drop Charges against Former Mexican Defense Minister.” The Washington Post. 17 November 2020.
Krauze, León. “The Arrest of a Mexican General Should Be a Turning Point for AMLO and the War on Drugs.” The Washington Post. 22 October 2020.