WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department is dropping its drug trafficking and money laundering case against former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, Attorney General William Barr said Tuesday.
Barr said the department would drop its case so Cienfuegos “may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law.” Cienfuegos, who was charged in federal court in Brooklyn, was arrested in Los Angeles last month.
Cienfuegos, who led Mexico’s army for six years under ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto, was the highest-ranking former Cabinet official arrested 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.
In court papers last month, U.S. 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 U.S. law enforcement and shelter him in Mexico.” Had he been convicted of the charges in the U.S., 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. 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.
Barr said in a joint statement with Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero that the U.S. Justice Department had made the decision to drop the U.S. case 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 Justice Department said it has provided Mexico with evidence collected in the case.