Mexico allegedly pressured the Department of Justice into dropping drug trafficking and money laundering charges against former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos by threatening to expel US drug agents from the country.
Three sources with knowledge of the situation described the alleged threat to the New York Times on Wednesday after a US federal judge granted Attorney General William Barr’s request to drop the case against Cienfuegos and return him to Mexico to be investigated.
Cienfuegos, 72 – nicknamed El Padrino, or ‘The Godfather’ – was taken into custody at Los Angeles International Airport last month after being accused of using his office to protect Mexico’s H-2 narcotics cartel.
The Times sources said Cienfuego’s arrest sparked outrage among the highest officials in the Mexican government, who had been kept in the dark about the DOJ’s plans despite a long history of working closely with the US on drug cases.
Mexico lashed out at the perceived betrayal by issuing an unprecedented warning that it could move to expel American federal drug agents if the DOJ refused to abandon its case against Cienfuegos, the sources said.
Mexico allegedly pressured the Department of Justice into dropping drug trafficking and money laundering charges against former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos (pictured) by threatening to expel US drug agents from the country
The DOJ appeared to heed that warning as Acting US Attorney Seth DuCharme brought Barr’s decision to drop the charges to a judge during a hearing in New York on Wednesday.
DuCharme said the decision was based on the ‘balancing of interests’ between pursuing prosecution and of deference to the US’s relationship with Mexico.
Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard alluded to outrage among members of his government after the hearing, saying he had told Barr that the US had to choose between trying Cienfuegos and having continued cooperation.
‘It is in your hands. You can’t have both,’ Ebrard recalled telling Barr. ‘You cannot have close cooperation with all of Mexico’s institutions and at the same time do this.’
The decision to drop the charges was made by Attorney General William Barr (pictured) and was based on the ‘balancing of interests’ between pursuing prosecution and of deference to America’s relationship with Mexico
Barr said in a statement Tuesday that the Justice Department would drop its case so Cienfuegos so could be investigated under Mexican law.
He said the motion comes as 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’.
Under an agreement signed by prosecutors and the general, Cienfuegos would depart the US for Mexico ‘expeditiously in the custody of the US Marshals,’ Carol Bagley Amon said. He would not be able to contest his removal or claim asylum in the US.
In announcing the dropping of the charges, Amon said: ‘Although these are very serious charges against a very significant figure, and the old adage “a bird in the hand” comes to mind, I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the government’s decision.’
The Justice Department said it has provided Mexico with evidence collected in the case.
Cienfuegos’ lawyers didn’t contest Wednesday’s decision. They have previously said he is innocent.
Under an agreement signed by prosecutors and the general, Cienfuegos would depart the US for Mexico ‘expeditiously in the custody of the US Marshals,’ Carol Bagley Amon said. He would not be able to contest his removal or claim asylum in the US
Cienfuegos, who led Mexico’s army for six years under ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto, was the highest-ranking former Cabinet official arrested in the US since the top Mexican 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 from 2012 to 2018.
Prosecutors said intercepted messages showed Cienfuegos worked to ensure that the military did not take action against the cartel and that operations were initiated against rivals in exchange for bribes.
He was also accused of introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.
Cienfuegos is seen left alongside Mexico’s then-President Enrique Pena Nieto during the annual Independence Day military parade in Mexico City’s main square in November 2020
Cienfuegos (seen in the above court sketch on Wednesday) will likely face charges in Mexico for using his office to protect Mexico’s H-2 narcotics cartel
In court papers last month, US prosecutors had 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 US law enforcement and shelter him in Mexico.’
Had he been convicted of the charges in the US, he would’ve faced at least 10 years in federal prison.
Under Cienfuegos, the Mexican army was accused of frequent human rights abuses, but that was true of both his predecessors and his successor in the post.
The worst scandal in Cienfuegos’ tenure involved the 2014 army killings of suspects in a grain warehouse.
The June 2014 massacre involved soldiers who killed 22 suspects at the warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya.
The H-2 cartel is a branch of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, which is also known as the Beltrán-Leyva Organization. The cartel was born in 2008 out of the Sinaloa Cartel, which was founded by Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán (above)
While some died in an initial shootout with the army patrol – in which one soldier was wounded – a human rights investigation later showed that at least eight and perhaps as many as a dozen suspects were executed after they surrendered.
The H-2 cartel is a name for the Beltran-Leyva gang that was founded by cousins of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman and was once engaged in a bloody war with his Sinaloa cartel.
The cartel made millions of dollars through the distribution of drugs in New York, North Carolina, Minnesota, Ohio and Las Vegas and Los Angeles, court documents say.
Last month’s arrest of Cienfuegos marked the first time a former Mexican defense minister has been indicted and detained.
Cienfuegos was a powerful figure in Mexico’s drug war in which the army battled cartels across the country.
The United States Defense Department awarded him the William J. Perry Award for Excellence in Security and Defense Education back in 2017.
Cienfuegos, who has 54 years of active military service, retired from the military in November 2018, a month before President Andres Manuel López Obrador took office.
He served as commander for the XV Military Zone, V Military Region in Jalisco, I Military Region in Mexico City and the VII Military Region in Chiapas.
Cienfuegos reportedly owns two houses, one apartment and a land plot along with several luxury vehicles.
At the time of his retirement, he declared to the Mexican government that he had $645,858 in his bank account.
Cienfuegos, who has 54 years of active military service, retired from the military in November 2018, a month before President Andres Manuel López Obrador took office
WHO IS THE CARTEL AND WHAT ARE THEIR LINKS TO EL CHAPO?
Prosecutors say the H-2 cartel is an alternate name for the violent Mexican drug trafficking organization called Beltrán-Leyva Organization (BLO).
BLO, or Beltrán Leyva Cartel as it is also known, was founded by the Beltrán-Leyva brothers – Marcos Arturo, Carlos, Alfredo, Mario Alberto and Héctor in 2008.
The criminal group was born out of the Sinaloa Cartel, the syndicate founded by their cousin, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán.
The Beltrán Leyva Cartel transported and sold cocaine, heroin and marijuana via several corridors in Mexican states of Morelos, Guerrero, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Nayarit.
The Beltrán Leyva Cartel also had a hand in human trafficking operations, laundering money, extorting businesses, smuggling of weapons, ordering kidnappings and assassinations.
Both factions fell out following the arrest of Alfredo Beltrán-Leyva on January 2008. The BLO pinned the blame of Alfredo’s apprehension on El Chapo, subsequently ordering the assassination of El Chapo’s son, Édgar Guzmán.
On May 8, 2008, Guzmán and two cousins died in a hail of bullets when they were attacked while sitting inside a vehicle at a shopping center in Culiacán, Sinaloa, after El Chapo’s assassins confused them with a rival.
The cartel would lose its footing in the drug trafficking trade in the years to come.
Arturo Beltrán-Leyva was killed in a shootout with the Mexican military December 16, 2009, and Carlos Beltrán-Leyva was arrested by Mexican security forces December 30, 2009. Héctor Beltrán-Leyva was arrested October 1, 2014.
Following Héctor Beltrán-Leyva’s death, Juan Francisco Patrón assumed a top ranking position with the cartel and created his own branch, the H-2 Cartel, which infiltrated the Mexican government and managed to enlist top government officials, including the then defense minister, General Salvador Cienfuegos.
Patrón was killed in a shootout with the military in 2017.