The U.S. government said Tuesday that it was dropping drug trafficking charges against former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, a stunning turnaround in a prosecution that had deeply angered Mexican authorities.
The surprise move came a month after Cienfuegos’ arrest at Los Angeles International Airport.
In a joint statement, Attorney General William Barr and his Mexican counterpart, Alejandro Gertz Manero, said that the U.S. Justice Department would drop the case and that Cienfuegos would face justice under Mexican law.
“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,” the joint statement said.
The decision flies in the face of long-standing U.S. mistrust of the Mexican justice system and deep skepticism about its ability to prosecute high-level corruption.
At the time of Cienfuegos’ arrest, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said no charges were pending in Mexico against him.
Cienfuegos served as defense secretary from 2012 to 2018 under then-President Enrique Pena Nieto.
The joint statement said that Mexico has opened its own investigation of Cienfuegos and that U.S. authorities have provided evidence to prosecutors in the case.
“Our two countries remain committed to cooperation on this matter, as well as our bilateral law enforcement cooperation,” the statement said. “As the decision today reflects, we are stronger when we work together and respect the sovereignty of our nations and their institutions. This close partnership increases the security of the citizens of both countries.”
Cienfuegos, 72, a more than 50-year veteran of the Mexican military, was in federal custody in New York, where the case against him was to be prosecuted. It was unclear when he would return to Mexico.
A hearing was scheduled in the case for Wednesday in U.S. District Court in New York.
His arrest last month sent tremors through Mexico’s leadership circles and jolted the country’s military establishment, a key ally of Lopez Obrador. Mexican authorities say they were kept in the dark about the investigation of Cienfuegos and didn’t learn of the charges until he was arrested.
Mexico sent a formal note of protest to the U.S. government about the arrest, a rare instance in which the administration of Lopez Obrador has challenged the Trump administration.
U.S. prosecutors appeared to have amassed a strong case against Cienfuegos, who was accused of helping Mexican drug cartels smuggle “thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana” into the United States, according to court documents. Among other things, the former defense secretary was accused of aiding cartels in maritime smuggling of drugs.
Using informants from their many cases against Mexican cartels, U.S. prosecutors have pursued charges against a number of former high-ranking Mexican officials.
Still facing trial in New York is Genaro Garcia Luna, who served as security chief in the administration of President Felipe Calderon from 2006 to 2012. Mexico has not protested the prosecution of Garcia Luna, who allegedly took millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa cartel formerly headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.
Lopez Obrador has called Garcia Luna’s arrest a symbol of how Mexico became a “narco state” during the administration of Calderon, a political rival.
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