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US drops charges against former Mexican defense minister

MEXICO CITY (AP) – The United States Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it will drop drug trafficking and money laundering charges against former Mexican Defense Secretary General Salvador Cienfuegos, in an unprecedented decision praised by the Mexican government. and that some analysts are beginning to interpret it as a “gift” from the government of Donald Trump to his neighbor to the south for not recognizing the triumph of Democrat Joe Biden.

US Attorney General William Barr said in a statement that the agency will dismiss the case so that Cienfuegos “can be investigated and, if deemed appropriate, prosecuted under Mexican law.”

Cienfuegos, charged in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, was arrested last month in Los Angeles.

In the motion before the court, Acting Prosecutor Seth DuCharme noted that “the United States has determined that important and sensitive foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in continuing the process against the accused.”

He added that “the evidence in this case is solid” and that the withdrawal of charges is “without the effects of res judicata” so that “Mexico can proceed first.”

Samuel González, founder of the Mexican prosecutor’s office specialized in organized crime, explained to The Associated Press that this means the United States could reinstate the charges if Mexico does not carry out the investigation properly.

The petition from the Department of Justice also indicates that Cienfuegos voluntarily agreed to return to Mexico and that the transfer will be done “without delay.”

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Tuesday afternoon 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 government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has not recognized the triumph of Democrat Joe Biden on the grounds that it will only do so once there is an official pronouncement from the electoral authorities. Trump maintains, without presenting evidence, that there was fraud against him.

Ebrard commented that Mexico had expressed its rejection of the general’s arrest for not having been notified of the investigation and recalled that the government is considering reviewing its relationship with the US anti-drug agency, the DEA. That is why he considered the decision of the United States positive. “We do not see it as a path to impunity but as an act of respect for Mexico and the Mexican armed forces.”

Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the DEA, told The Associated Press that the announcement is “discouraging” and “disappointing,” and said there will be little chance that the general will be prosecuted in Mexico, a country where more than 90% of crimes do not go to trial.

“López Obrador has been very subordinate to Donald Trump on immigration matters and has been hesitant to congratulate Joe Biden,” Vigil said. “This is just a gift, a huge gift” from Trump. added.

“It sends a very negative message to US agencies that Donald Trump is willing to manipulate legal procedures,” he added.

Cienfuegos led the Mexican Army for six years in the government of former President Enrique Peña Nieto, and was the highest-ranking former official to be arrested since former Secretary of Public Safety Genaro García Luna was detained in Texas in 2019. The government de López Obrador has not made public any diplomatic attempt to transfer García Luna to stand trial in Mexico.

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 smuggle 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 guarantee that the army did not take action against that cartel but 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.

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 United States laws and protect him in Mexico. ”In the event that he had been convicted of the charges he faced 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 Cienfuegos and with 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 8 of them they were executed after surrendering.

Barr said in a joint statement with the head of the Attorney General’s Office, Alejandro Gertz Manero, that the United States Department of Justice made the decision to dismiss the case in the United States in recognition of “the solid institutional partnership between Mexico and United States, and with the interest of demonstrating our united front against all forms of crime ”.

Ebrard acknowledged that the decision “is unprecedented” but rejected that it can be classified as “strange” and argued that the general should be investigated in the country, since it was in Mexico where he would have committed his alleged crimes.

“Is there trust in Mexican institutions? Then let the general come ”, declared Ebrard. “No confidence? Well, there won’t be any in any area of ​​cooperation ”.

Before the United States detained Cienfuegos, there was no investigation in Mexico, but Ebrard explained that at that time an investigation was opened and since November 6, the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic (FGR) already has all the documentation of the US investigation.

The foreign minister did not clarify whether the former secretary will be detained once he enters the country and limited himself to saying that “he will be received” by the prosecution, which will decide his legal situation.

____ Balsamo reported from Washington. The Associated Press journalist Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this story.