MEXICO CITY – President Andrés Manuel López Obrador lashed out at the Drug Enforcement Administration on Friday, accusing it of fabricating a narcotics case against Mexico’s former defense secretary, in comments that underscored the fragile state of relations with Washington as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office.
“Why did they do this investigation this way? Without substance, without evidence?” the president demanded at his daily news conference, referring to the DEA and its case against retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos.
Cienfuegos was arrested Oct. 15 at Los Angeles International Airport on charges of working with the H-2 cartel to ship thousands of kilos of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana to the United States. Facing the fury of the Mexican government, the U.S. Justice Department dropped the case the following month, and sent Cienfuegos back home for investigation. On Thursday, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office announced that it had found no grounds to charge the general, who served as defense minister from 2012 to 2018.
Cienfuegos was the most senior Mexican official ever detained in the United States on drug charges. The arrest enraged the military, which has become a pillar of López Obrador’s government – responsible for the anti-drug fight and a plethora of other activities, including building airports and railways. The Mexican government responded by rushing a law through Congress in December that limits the DEA’s ability to work in Mexico.
López Obrador said Friday that he would make public the hundreds of pages of evidence the Justice Department sent to Mexico – even though it might anger the U.S. government. That mainly consists of intercepted BlackBerry messages, in which a mysterious figure known as “the Godfather” communicates with suspected traffickers. U.S. prosecutors had said Cienfuegos was the shadowy individual, a charge the former minister has denied.
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau explained the U.S. decision to drop charges against Cienfuegos by telling Mexican journalists this week that U.S. prosecutors “don’t necessarily understand all the repercussions of their decisions” when they charge a foreign dignitary, according to media reports.
Prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York have insisted that their case was strong. Mexican officials have argued otherwise.
The exoneration of Cienfuegos unleashed stinging criticism from Mexican analysts, who accused López Obrador of backpedaling on his campaign promises to attack corruption and impunity. The president denied that and sought to blame the episode on the DEA, hinting at conspiracy theories that the agency had a vendetta against Mexico’s military.
“We believe that impunity must end, and of course corruption, but also that there can’t be reprisals, vengeance, and you can’t invent crimes,” López Obrador said. He accused the DEA of having “little professionalism” and torpedoing the relationship between his government and the Trump administration.
The Justice Department, asked for reaction, said: “The United States reserves the right to recommence its prosecution of Cienfuegos if the Government of Mexico fails to do so.”
Analysts said López Obrador’s comments were a message to Biden after an arrest that stunned senior Mexican officials and prompted concerns that they, too, were being surveilled by U.S. agents. The president is asking Biden to “improve coordination and communication between the two countries in security,” said Gustavo Mohar, a former top intelligence official.
Another former senior intelligence official, Guillermo Valdés Castellanos, said López Obrador’s statements amounted to “a very complicated signal” to Biden.
“We are still in a dynamic of distancing and conflict and not of reconstruction” of the relationship, he said. “Hopefully Biden’s people have the diplomatic skills to convince the Mexican government that it’s important to cooperate.”
Mexico is a crucial player in the anti-narcotics effort; it’s the top source of heroin and methamphetamines reaching the United States, as well as a major corridor for cocaine and fentanyl. López Obrador, a longtime leftist who took office in 2018, has been openly skeptical of the “war on drugs,” but his government had maintained anti-narcotics efforts with Washington and extradited dozens of alleged traffickers.
The Cienfuegos case, however, has put a chill on cooperation.
Carl Pike, a former DEA agent who worked on Mexico issues for years, said criminals would be the beneficiaries.
“The biggest threat the cartels had, the biggest thing working against them, was the relationship the U.S. and Mexico had,” he said.
The Mexican Attorney General’s Office said in a statement that it concluded that Cienfuegos “never had any meeting” or contact with the H-2 cartel, and “never gave any order to help the crime group.” There were also no signs that he had illegal earnings, the office said.
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The Washington Post’s Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.