Judge drops charges against former Mexican defense secretary

NEW YORK (AP) – A New York judge on Wednesday agreed to drop drug trafficking and money laundering charges against former Mexican Defense Secretary General Salvador Cienfuegos in an unusual decision made after Mexico made veiled threats to cut off cooperation with the United States.

The decision of Judge Carol Amon, of the Eastern District Court of New York, opens the way for Cienfuegos to be returned to his country and face legal process there.

Amon approved the prosecution’s request to drop the charges against the general and said that Cienfuegos would then “expeditiously” leave the United States to go to Mexico accompanied by US marshals.

On Tuesday, in an unprecedented decision, the US Department of Justice announced that it would ask for the charges to be dropped. The Mexican government praised the move, saying that Cienfuegos’ arrest last month had taken it by surprise and that the United States had not shared information about the indictment against him. Some analysts interpreted the US decision as a “gift” from the government of Donald Trump to its southern neighbor for not recognizing the electoral triumph of the president-elect, Democrat Joe Biden.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Judge Amon asked prosecutor Seth DuCharme if the US Attorney General, William Barr, was the one who wanted the charges dropped, to which DuCharme replied yes. DuCharme said that the decision responds to a “balance of interests” and that the US government believes that the measure is beneficial for the relationship between Mexico and the United States.

“I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the government’s position,” Judge Amon replied during the hearing.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said at a press conference Wednesday that he had told Barr that the United States had to choose between trying Cienfuegos or continuing cooperation with Mexico.

“It is in your hands. You can’t have both, ”Ebrard said, telling the US attorney general. “You cannot have close cooperation with all the institutions in Mexico and at the same time do that. You have to choose. You decide”.

Ebrard explained that he did not threaten “any specific action” but said that he imagined that Barr was “concerned”. The foreign minister also said that he called the US ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, to express Mexico’s anger at the formal accusation that the United States carried out against Cienfuegos without having notified.

On the other hand, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that the prosecution in Mexico will decide whether the general will be put in jail once he arrives in the country. However, because there are no charges against him in Mexico, it is possible that he will go free, he added.

“It does not mean impunity, it means that an investigation is initiated, which has already begun after they send us evidence,” said the president.

Ebrard said that the general “returns to Mexico in freedom.”

The day before, the foreign minister had said that before the United States detained Cienfuegos there was no investigation in Mexico on the general, but that after his arrest an investigation was opened and since November 6, the Attorney General’s Office has all the documentation of the US investigation.

But analysts in Mexico doubt that Cienfuegos faces charges in his country.

“That is not going to happen, we all know it. He will return to Mexico and be free, because that is the guarantee that President López Obrador has given to the army, ”wrote columnist Carlos Loret de Mola in the newspaper El Universal.

Cienfuegos was indicted by an investigative jury in New York in 2019 and accused of participating in an international network of drug trafficking and money laundering. Prosecutors said he helped the H-2 cartel traffic cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while serving as Secretary of Defense between 2012 and 2018.

According to prosecutors, intercepted messages showed that Cienfuegos took steps to ensure that the army did not take action against that cartel and that operations were launched against rival groups in exchange for bribes. He was also accused of introducing the cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican government officials.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Amon asked Cienfuegos several questions to make sure he understood the agreement between the United States and Mexico.

“Yes, ma’am,” Cienfuegos replied repeatedly. “Yes, I did it with the lawyers.”

Amon reminded Cienfuegos that under the agreement he could not refuse to be sent to Mexico and he could not ask for asylum in the United States. “Yes, I get it,” he said.

Prosecutor DuCharme said during the hearing that “the great interest in maintaining a cooperative relationship” with Mexico outweighs the interest of the prosecution in carrying out the formal accusation against Cienfuegos. The United States has said it expects Mexico to investigate Cienfuegos and carry out its own judicial process.

Ebrard said the day before that Washington’s decision is the result of almost a month of negotiations between the two countries and that “it has nothing to do” with the elections in the United States. “They are two different processes.”

The Obrador government has not recognized Biden’s triumph, arguing that it will do so once there is an official pronouncement from the electoral authorities. Trump maintains, without presenting evidence, that there was fraud against him.

In court documents filed last month, US prosecutors said there was a high risk that Cienfuegos would run away and use “his connections” with members of the H-2 cartel and other former high-level officials. ” to help him circumvent the laws of the United States and protect him in Mexico. ” Should he have been convicted in the United States, he faced a minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison.

The Mexican army has been accused of frequent human rights abuses, both under the command of Cienfuegos and of his predecessors and successors. One of the biggest scandals in his time as secretary was a massacre that occurred in June 2014, when the military killed 22 suspects in a warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya, in the State of Mexico, and it was later shown that at least eight of them they had been executed after surrendering.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Judge Amon admitted that the prosecution’s request is not very common but that the law says it should be approved unless it is clearly contrary to the benefit of the public interest. The judge added that they are “very serious charges against someone very important” but that she does not have to doubt the US government.

“I am not being told here that this request was made in bad faith,” he said.