MEXICO CITY – Mexico's foreign secretary said Thursday the country no longer wants officials accused of corruption to be put on trial in the United States, a move that could scale back a tradition that saw most of Mexico’s corruption cases tried north of the border.
However, a spokesman for Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the country was still willing to extradite officials or drug traffickers, walking back an earlier statement by Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard.
The flurry of exchanges came a day after the U.S. agreed to drop a high-profile drug trafficking and money laundering case against a former Mexican defense secretary, whose arrest in Los Angeles last month enraged Mexico.
Presidential spokesman Jesús Ramírez told The Associated Press extradition and other cooperation treaties between the U.S. and Mexico would be maintained, but the country wants formal information sharing and extradition processes.
"What we don’t want are surprise actions,” Ramirez said, in an apparent reference to retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos and other former officials who have been arrested while travelling to the United States.
Regarding drug traffickers and others whose crimes affect the United States, Ramírez said, “that justifies them being tried in the United States."
Ramírez's comments clarified a blanket declaration by Ebrard earlier Thursday saying that “whoever is culpable according to our laws will be tried, judged and if applicable sentenced in Mexico, and not in other countries.”
Ebrard also suggested that the agreement that led to the release of Cienfuegos was broader than previously known.
In response to Ebrard's comments, a U.S. Justice Department official said no new agreements had been reached between the two countries. The official could not publicly discuss the details of private diplomatic conversations and spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Roberto Velasco, Mexico’s director general of North American Affairs, said generally, crimes in Mexico would be investigated and prosecuted in Mexico. “As far as transnational crimes that involve both countries or third parties, both governments will continue to share information and available evidence, to determine how to proceed in specific cases,” he said.
The dramatic developments come at an uncertain time in the United States following the recent presidential election. Former Vice President Joe Biden garnered enough electoral votes to win, but President Donald Trump is contesting the outcome and has not allowed his administration to cooperate with a transition or provide briefings to Biden about foreign matters.
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.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice requested that the drug trafficking and money laundering charges against Cienfuegos be dismissed and that he be returned to Mexico in the interest of maintaining cross-border cooperation. That decision came after reports that Mexico had threatened to expel the Drug Enforcement Administration’s regional director and agents.
López Obrador denied that Thursday, saying, “We didn't threaten anybody. All we did was express our disagreement.”
“We did not threaten to expel the agents. We said we want to be informed and for the cooperation agreements to be respected,” López Obrador said, adding, “I think it is an injustice for innocent people to be put on trial.”
“You cannot allow foreign agencies to try Mexicans if there is no proof,” said López Obrador, who depicted it as a national sovereignty issue. “Just because they are other countries' legal institutions, does that make them the owners of justice and rectitude?”
Cienfuegos was returned to Mexico Wednesday and promptly released.
Ebrard vowed that the investigation into Cienfuegos would be “worthy of Mexico’s prestige and dignity.” But the entire process of notifying Cienfuegos of the investigation and letting him back into the country took only about a half hour, far less time than the average traveler spends in customs and immigration.
Ebrard appeared to be aware of the damage to Mexico's reputation if Mexican prosecutors, as many expect, fail to bring their own charges against Cienfuegos.
“It would be very costly for Mexico, to have decided to have this conversation with the United States, to achieve the dropping of charges against a former cabinet secretary for the first time in history, ... for him to be returned to Mexico, and then later do nothing,” Ebrard said. “That would be almost suicidal.”
The full scope of Mexico’s pressure was not clear and U.S. officials were vague about what led them to drop charges in a case they had celebrated as a major breakthrough just last month.
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. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't allowed to speak publicly about the case, would not elaborate.
A judge in New York City approved the dismissal of charges Wednesday, capping a lightning-fast turnaround in a case that drew loud protests from top Mexican officials and threatened to damage the delicate relationship that enables investigators in both countries to pursue drug kingpins together.
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.
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo and Deb Reichman in Washington contributed.