DOJ dropping charges against ex-Mexican defense minister

The Department of Justice (DOJ) announced Tuesday that it is dropping charges against former Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda and returning him to Mexico after his arrest in Los Angeles last month shook relations between Washington and Mexico City.

Attorney General William Barr said in a joint statement with Fiscalía General of Mexico Alejandro Gertz Manero that the DOJ would seek to have charges against Cienfuegos dismissed after Mexico opened its own investigation. Mexico did not commit to charging him upon completion of its probe. 

“In recognition of the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States, and in the interests of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality, the U.S. Department of Justice has made 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,” they said.

“At the request of the Fiscalía General de la República, the U.S. Department of Justice, under the Treaty that governs the sharing of evidence, has provided Mexico evidence in this case and commits to continued cooperation, within that framework, to support the investigation by Mexican authorities.” 

The DOJ’s move comes just over a month after Cienfuegos, who was secretary of Defense for Mexico between 2012 and 2018, was arrested on a warrant from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) after arriving at Los Angeles International Airport. He had been indicted by the Eastern District of New York on four counts of drug trafficking and money laundering, and he pleaded not guilty to charges this month that he aided the H-2 cartel. 

The arrest marked the rare detention of a such a highly ranked member of the Mexican military, particularly given Cienfuegos’s critical role in establishing closer ties between the Pentagon and the Mexican defense secretariat. However, the Mexican Army’s operation in the drug war has resulted in a department riddled with corruption.

“I always said it was not just a crisis, but a decadence, what was happening. A process of progressive degradation, and we are now seeing the depth of this decomposition,” then-incoming President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at the time of the arrest. 

The DOJ’s decision to drop charges against Cienfuegos is likely to please Mexican officials who said the detention was a drastic overstep by the U.S. Public opinion has also swung to Cienfuegos’s side since his arrest. 

Both Barr and Gertz Manero indicated they hoped the announcement would put any division fueled by the arrest behind the two nations.

“Our two countries remain committed to cooperation on this matter, as well as all our bilateral law enforcement cooperation,” they said. “As the decision today reflects, we are stronger when we work together and respect the sovereignty of our nations and their institutions. This close partnership increases the security of the citizens of both our countries.”

Tags Mexican Drug War Mexico Salvador Cienfuegos William Barr William Barr

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