NEW YORK – The United States on Wednesday dropped a high-profile drug trafficking and money laundering case against a former Mexican defense secretary, an extraordinary reversal that followed an intense pressure campaign from Mexico.
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 celebrated as a major breakthrough just last month, when federal agents nabbed retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos 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 U.S. 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 authorized 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 United States, 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.
The U.S. cited America’s relationship with Mexico as its reason for dropping the case.
“The United States determined that the broader interest in maintaining that relationship in a cooperative way outweighed the department’s interest and the public’s interest in pursuing this particular case,” Seth DuCharme, the acting U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, told the judge at a hearing.
He said the decision to drop the charges was made by Attorney General William Barr.
Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Wednesday that he told Barr that the U.S. had to choose between trying Cienfuegos and having continued cooperation.
“It is in your hands. You can’t have both,” Ebrard said he told Barr. “You cannot have close cooperation with all of Mexico’s institutions and at the same time do this.”
The Justice Department declined comment when asked about Ebrard’s account.
By early evening, a charter jet carrying Cienfuegos, accompanied by U.S. Marshals, had landed in Mexico.
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 defense 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 U.S. 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.
Gladys McCormick, a history professor at Syracuse University who specializes in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, said prosecuting Cienfuegos would have been enormously fraught for the United States.
“Following through on prosecuting Cienfuegos would have compromised intelligence gathering and joint military operations for years to come, which is part of the reason why the original arrest was so scandalous,” McCormick said. “He truly is untouchable and sacrosanct because of both what he represents and the secrets he carries with him.”
Mexico has repeatedly extradited major drug suspects, including at least some former elected officials, for trial in the United States. In the case of Cienfuegos, Mexican officials have taken no official position on whether he is innocent or guilty, saying that was up to the attorney general’s office to decide.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office would decide whether Cienfuegos was placed in custody once he is returned. But given that there are no charges yet in Mexico, he is likely to be set free.
“This does not signify impunity; it means that an investigation will be started,” López Obrador said.
It is rare for a highly prized defendant in a U.S. case to be arrested and then released in short order for reasons of diplomacy. Historically, it has been more likely to occur in cases involving espionage than drug trafficking.
U.S. prosecutors in Manhattan have recently resisted diplomatic efforts by another U.S. ally, Turkey, to get charges dropped against a large state-owned bank accused of violating sanctions on Iran.
Cienfuegos, a general who led Mexico’s army department for six years under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto, was the highest-ranking former Mexican Cabinet official arrested since top security official Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in 2019.
Analysts said Cienfuegos is unlikely to face charges in Mexico.
“That is not going to happen, we all know it,” columnist Carlos Loret de Mola wrote in the newspaper El Universal. “He will return to Mexico and be set free, because that is the promise that President López Obrador made to the army.”
Outside the Brooklyn courthouse, defense attorney Edward Sapone noted that Cienfuegos has pleaded not guilty and had planned to prove his innocence.
Cienfuegos spoke little in court, answering a few questions from the judge through an interpreter.
López Obrador has entrusted Mexico’s army and navy with a broader range of tasks than most other previous Mexican presidents, and he faced pressure to win Cienfuegos’ return.
The old ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party had previously called on Mexico’s government to pay Cienfuegos’ legal fees, and on Tuesday it celebrated the decision to drop the charges. Party leader Alejandro Moreno wrote in his Twitter account that the party “resolutely supports Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos. ... We should all congratulate ourselves and always support our armed forces.”
Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former chief of international operations, said the decision “is nothing more than a gift, a huge gift” from President Donald Trump to López Obrador, probably given as a favor for past help on immigration issues.
He said the chances of Cienfuegos being convicted in Mexico are "slim to none,” noting the former defense secretary’s political connections in Mexico and the country’s idolization of the military.
U.S. civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby said the Cienfuegos case marks an odd capstone to the Trump administration.
“It is ironic ... that Trump began his administration screaming about Mexicans who were bringing in drugs and ends his presidency by preventing the prosecution of a Mexican general who is a drug lord.”
Associated Press writers Joshua Goodman in Miami and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.