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Mexico Will Not Charge Former Defense Chief With Drug Trafficking

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and former Mexican Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda during an honor cordon at the Pentagon in 2017. Mexico cleared Cienfuegos of all charges related to drug trafficking on Thursday.
Carolyn Kaster
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and former Mexican Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda during an honor cordon at the Pentagon in 2017. Mexico cleared Cienfuegos of all charges related to drug trafficking on Thursday.

Updated Saturday at 6:57 a.m. ET

Mexico's attorney general will not charge former Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda with drug trafficking, a decision endorsed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador Friday morning, in a case the U.S. had pursued to the fury of its southern neighbor.

The U.S. Justice Department, in a one-sentence statement, responded that the retired general remains a target: "The United States reserves the right to recommence its prosecution of Cienfuegos if the Government of Mexico fails to do so."

Cienfuegos was arrested by U.S. law enforcement at Los Angeles International Airport in October, accused of aiding the H-2 Cartel move thousands of tons of narcotics in exchange for bribes. The U.S. Justice Department accused Cienfuegos of being the shadowy, high-ranking government official known as "The Godfather" who used the power of the Mexican state to aid drug traffickers.

Mexico was outraged by the arrest and demanded that Cienfuegos be extradited to face the accusations in the Mexican justice system, and threatened to end cooperation with U.S. law enforcement in the drug war if he was not returned.

In an extraordinary reversal, then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr in November issued a joint statement with Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero, requesting that charges against Cienfuegos be dropped. They cited as reasons for the request the "strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States" and said that Cienfuegos would face justice in Mexico.

A skeptical U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon in New York granted the request.

In announcing its decision Thursday night not to prosecute Cienfuegos, Gertz's office said the former defense secretary presented evidence over five days refuting the U.S. charges and that the attorney general's office found no evidence he had unexplained income or had acted in any way to assist the cartel, according to The Associated Press.

"The conclusion was reached that General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda never had any meeting with the criminal organization investigated by American authorities, and that he also never had any communication with them, nor did he carry out acts to protect or help those individuals," the office said in a statement, AP reports.

In a second statement issued in response to the decision, a spokesperson for the Justice Department said the department was "deeply disappointed" by Mexico's actions in the case and that it "fully stands by its investigation and charges in this matter."

"The United States Department of Justice is also deeply disappointed by Mexico's decision to publicize information shared with Mexico in confidence," read the Friday statement. "Publicizing such information violates the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance between Mexico and the United States, and calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico's own criminal investigations."

As NPR's Mexico City correspondent Carrie Kahn has reported, high-profile drug traffickers are typically extradited to the U.S. for prosecution, most famously Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, who was sent to the U.S. in 2017, convicted and sentenced to life in a U.S. prison.

In her ruling last November to drop charges against Cienfuegos, Judge Amon noted the government's request was extraordinary. Amon said "the old adage 'a bird in the hand' comes to mind," but that she didn't question the government's determination that Mexico would prosecute Cienfuegos.

After his return to Mexico, Cienfuegos was never incarcerated and is no longer under investigation.

NPR's Kahn reports that López Obrador, who has a close relationship with the Mexican military and has given the armed forces wide responsibility in the country, was under much pressure to help Cienfuegos. In addition, many Mexicans resent U.S. accusations the country has failed to halt the drug trade, believing it is U.S. consumer demand for illegal narcotics that drives the criminality.

The exoneration of Cienfuegos comes days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. López Obrador was among the last major world leaders to congratulate Biden on his victory, a cool reception which may have had to do with his close relationship with President Trump.

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Mark Katkov