Justice Dept. drops drug trafficking, money laundering charges against former Mexican general

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FILE – In this Oct. 16, 2020, court artist sketch, former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda’s appears in federal court in Los Angeles. The U.S. Justice Department is dropping its drug trafficking and money laundering against former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, Attorney General William Barr said Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. (Bill Robles via AP, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — A U.S. judge on Wednesday granted the Department of Justice’s request to drop the drug trafficking and money laundering case against former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos and return him to Mexico.

Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme told a judge at a hearing in New York that the decision to drop the charges was made by Attorney General William Barr and was based on the balancing of interests between pursuing prosecution and of deference to the U.S.‘s relationship with Mexico.

“The United States determined that the broader interest in maintaining that relationship in a cooperative way outweighed the department’s interest and the public’s interest in pursuing this particular case,” DuCharme said.

FILE PHOTO: Mexico’s then Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda attends a flag-raising ceremony honoring the victims of the September 1985 and 2017 earthquakes at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico September 19, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril/File Photo

Under an agreement signed by prosecutors and the general, Cienfuegos would depart the U.S. for Mexico “expeditiously in the custody of the U.S. Marshals,” Judge Carol Bagley Amon said. He would not be able to contest his removal or claim asylum in the U.S.

Amon said she understood “this application is being made at the highest level of the Justice Department, that this was a decision made by the Attorney General of the United States.”

Cienfuegos’ lawyers didn’t contest the decision. They have previously said he is innocent.

Barr said in a statement Tuesday that the Justice Department would drop its case so Cienfuegos, who was arrested in Los Angeles earlier this spring, could be investigated under Mexican law.

“I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the government’s position,” Amon said in granting the request to drop the case.

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 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.

Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard at a news conference Tuesday that Mexico had expressed its displeasure with not being advised of the investigation against Cienfuegos and requested, then received, the evidence against him.

Barr said in a joint statement with Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero that the U.S. Justice Department had made the decision to drop the U.S. case in recognition “of the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States, and in the interests of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality.”

The Justice Department said it has provided Mexico with evidence collected in the case.

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