U.S. prosecutors formally dismissed drug trafficking and money laundering charges against Mexico’s former defense minister this Wednesday.
In New York City, a federal judge has granted prosecutors requests from the Justice Department to dismiss all criminal charges against retired Mexican Army General and former defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. Cienfuegos, who served as Mexico’s defense secretary under former President Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012 to 2018, was secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 2019. General Cienfuegos will be returned to Mexico by the U.S. Marshals to face charges by Mexican authorities “if appropriate.”
According to the U.S. indictment, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, also known as “El Padrino” (The GodFather), is accused of trafficking in cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana to the United States and money laundering while serving as Mexico’s defense minister.
Gen. Cienfuegos also accused of permitting the “H-2” cartel led at the time by Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, alias “El H2” to operate with impunity in Mexico while using the Mexican military to launch operations against rivals. Patrón Sánchez, “H-2” was the “plaza boss” for the Beltrán-Leyva spinoff drug gang previously aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel. Patrón Sánchez was killed in February 2017, during a raid led by the Mexican Navy.
The arrest of Gen. Cienfuegos took place at Los Angeles International Airport in mid-October when he arrived with his family from his native Mexico. His detention drew immediate backlash from high level Mexican government officials who were said to be blindsided and embarrassed since they were not informed of the investigation against Cienfuegos and impending arrest.
On Tuesday, November 17, the Attorney General of the United States William P. Barr and Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero released a joint statement as follows:
“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 U.S. Department of Justice has made the decision to seek dismissal of the U.S. criminal charges against former Secretary Cienfuegos, so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law.”
“At the request of the Fiscalía General de la República, the U.S. Department of Justice, under the Treaty that governs the sharing of evidence, has provided Mexico evidence in this case and commits to continued cooperation, within that framework, to support the investigation by Mexican authorities.”
According to court documents, prosecutors indicated that “the evidence in this case is strong.” But further related, “as a matter of foreign policy and in recognition of the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States, and in the interest of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality including the trafficking of narcotics by Mexican Cartels the government hereby moves to dismiss the pending charges against the defendant without prejudice.”
A detention memo submitted by the Drug Enforcement Administration indicated that thousands of intercepted BlackBerry messages revealed that Cienfuegos made sure that military operations were not carried out against the H-2 cartel, as reported by NBC News.
The arrest and subsequent release of Gen. Cienfuegos followed the December 2019 arrest of Genaro García Luna, the former Secretary of Public Security in Mexico. García Luna was accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes from “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel while he controlled Mexico’s Federal Police Force. Garcia Luna remains in U.S. custody
Robert Arce is a retired Phoenix Police detective with extensive experience working Mexican organized crime. Arce completed work assignments in the Balkans, Iraq, Haiti, with the most recent being a three-year tour in Monterrey, Mexico, for the U.S. Department of State, International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Program. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org