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MEXICO CITY — The U.S. Justice Department is dropping its drug trafficking and money laundering case against former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos, Attorney General William Barr said Tuesday.
Barr said the department would drop its case so Cienfuegos “may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law.” Cienfuegos, who was charged in federal court in Brooklyn, was arrested in Los Angeles last month.
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.
Cienfuegos was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 2019 and accused of conspiring to participate in an international drug distribution and money laundering scheme. Prosecutors alleged he helped the H-2 cartel smuggle thousands of kilos of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while he was defense secretary in 2012-2018.
Prosecutors said intercepted messages showed that in exchange for bribes, Cienfuegos worked to ensure that the military did not take action against the cartel and that operations were initiated against rivals. He was also accused of introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.
Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said later at a news conference that Mexico had expressed its displeasure with not being advised of the investigation against Cienfuegos and requested, then received, the evidence against him.
“We don’t see it as a path to impunity but rather as an act of respect toward Mexico and Mexico’s armed forces,” Ebrard said.
Ebrard denied the decision was related to the U.S. elections or the decision not to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden, noting he spoke with Barr on Oct. 26, a week before the U.S. elections.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with it. They are two different processes,” Ebrard said.
In a court filing, acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme said dismissing the case would be “in the public interest of the United States.”
“The United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant …,” he wrote. The filing added that “the evidence in this case is strong.”
In court papers last month, U.S. prosecutors argued Cienfuegos was a significant flight risk and said he would “likely seek to leverage his connections to high level H-2 Cartel members in Mexico, as well as former high-level corrupt government officials, to assist him in fleeing from U.S. law