NEW YORK – A United States federal judge granted on Wednesday prosecutors’ request to drop drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges against Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, a Mexican former defense secretary who will be sent back to Mexico immediately.
The ruling was handed down a day after the US Justice Department announced that President Donald Trump’s administration had reached a deal with its Mexican counterpart for Cienfuegos to be investigated in his homeland.
Judge Carol Bagley Amon of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York also ordered that Cienfuegos be escorted to Mexican territory by US Marshals.
In a brief 15-minute hearing, Amon sought assurance that the Mexican general understood that, under the terms of the diplomatic deal, his right to request asylum in the US has been waived.
Cienfuegos repeatedly responded affirmatively.
US prosecutors may bring new charges against him in the future if they deem them to be appropriate, according to the ruling.
A court filing Tuesday afternoon by the acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Seth DuCharme, explained the series of events that led to the diplomatic agreement.
It said that after Cienfuegos’ Oct. 15 arrest in Los Angeles Mexican government officials entered into talks with their counterparts in the US about the indictment, which had been kept sealed for more than a year.
It was then that the US was informed that Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office had initiated its own investigation into the defendant’s alleged conduct, the text read.
The US government therefore decided to drop the charges so Mexico could proceed with its own investigation and potentially prosecute him there.
The Justice Department determined that dropping the charges was in the “public interest of the United States” due to countries’ close cooperation on bilateral investigations.
Cienfuegos, who served as defense secretary in then-President Enrique Peña Nieto’s 2012-2018 administration, was arrested on Oct. 15 at the Los Angeles International Airport at the request of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and later transferred to New York.
On Nov. 2, he pleaded not guilty to the drug and money-laundering charges.
In the indictment filed in August 2019 and unsealed on Oct. 16 of this year, a federal grand jury charged Cienfuegos with three counts related to the manufacture, importation and distribution of narcotics and one count of conspiring to launder the proceeds from their sale.
The indictment alleged that he committed those crimes over a period of just over a year between December 2015 and January 2017 while he was at the helm of Mexico’s Defense Secretariat.
The US government accused Cienfuegos of having had ties to Juan Francisco Patron Sanchez, alias H-2, a top leader of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel who was killed by Mexican marines in February 2017.
“Due in part to the defendant’s corrupt assistance, the H-2 Cartel conducted its criminal activity in Mexico without significant interference from the Mexican military and imported thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States,” prosecutors said in a letter on Oct. 16 to Judge Amon.
The general will be transferred to his homeland on Wednesday, his attorneys said in remarks to the media, adding that they do not know if he will be prosecuted there.
Edward Sapone, one of Cienfuegos’ attorneys, said that even though the decision to drop charges was unusual it was not a surprise.
According to the lawyer, the defense team always knew there would be a “dismissal or some sort of vindication.”
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, for his part, devoted his entire morning news conference Wednesday at Mexico City’s National Palace to discuss the development in the Cienfuegos case.
He said no secret deals led to the US’s decision to drop the charges against Cienfuegos.
“There’s nothing hidden. We acted according to our principles and what we did was intervene politically, diplomatically, to express our inconformity,” he said.
Lopez Obrador had criticized the move to arrest Cienfuegos in the US, saying it was a clear example of the DEA’s interference in Mexican affairs.
On Wednesday, he denied having received any pressure from Mexico’s military but acknowledged that his administration had intervened to protect the army’s reputation.
“It’s no small matter. We can’t allow our basic institutions to be undermined with no basis. And let’s not forget that Mexico is a country that’s free, independent and sovereign,” the president said.
He added that it is now up to the federal AG’s office to determine if the former defense secretary will remain a free man after his return or face charges.
Mexico’s foreign relations secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, refused on Wednesday to speak specifically about a presumed Mexican government threat to cut off cooperation with the DEA and other US security agencies in Mexico unless Cienfuegos was sent back to his homeland.
Even so, he stressed the importance of the general’s release in the interest of continued bilateral cooperation.
“Essentially, the question here is whether we’re going to maintain cooperation between the two countries. If so, Mexican jurisdiction must be respected,” Ebrard said.
Maria de Haas, a specialist in international policy and security at Mexico’s Anahuac University, told EFE that the dropping of charges against Cienfuegos is a positive development because they had been based on “speculation” and added that moving the investigation to the defendant’s homeland gives the Mexican court system “its rightful place.”
But according to Guillermo Garduño, a national security and armed forces expert at Mexico’s Metropolitan Autonomous University, “the US authorities have washed their hands” of Cienfuegos, a military leader held in high regard by Mexican troops.
“Now the current Mexican government has a problem on their hands, first to file charges and second to overcome the resistance inside the Mexican army,” he said in an interview with EFE.