The US justice department unexpectedly moved to drop drug charges against Mexico’s former defence minister and hand his case to authorities in his home country, saying it was acting “as a matter of foreign policy”.
The U-turn by US authorities came a little more than a month after Salvador Cienfuegos, a retired four-star general, had been arrested on his arrival at Los Angeles airport and transferred to New York for trial.
He was charged with conspiracy to manufacture, import and distribute narcotics into the US, as well as money laundering. US authorities alleged that thousands of intercepted BlackBerry communications pointed to the former minister’s complicity with the little-known H2 drug cartel.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, and his Mexican counterpart, Alejandro Gertz Manero, on Tuesday said the US justice department had decided to seek the dismissal of charges against Gen Cienfuegos “so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law”.
In a statement, they said the move was being made “in recognition of the strong law enforcement partnership” between the countries and “in the interests of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality”.
In a court filing, initially filed secretly but unsealed by the judge in the case on Tuesday, the justice department said the move to drop the charges followed “discussions between United States and Mexican government officials”.
The motion, filed by the acting US attorney in Brooklyn, Seth DuCharme, said though the “evidence in this case is strong” and Gen Cienfuegos had been prosecuted appropriately, the case should be dismissed “as a matter of foreign policy”.
The US government sought a dismissal without prejudice, meaning that charges could be refiled in future. If it is granted, the US said Mr Cienfuegos would “voluntarily” depart to Mexico in the custody of the US Marshals Service.
The filing had initially been signed by the international narcotics and money laundering chief at the Brooklyn US attorney’s office before the judge in the case, Carol Amon, forced Mr DuCharme to sign it personally.
Ms Amon also ordered Mr DuCharme to appear at a previously scheduled status conference on Wednesday.
Despite allegations of widespread corruption under the 2012-18 government of then president Enrique Peña Nieto, in which Gen Cienfuegos served, his arrest last month strained relations with the US and incensed the Mexican armed forces, a key ally of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, protested to the US government after Mexico’s government said it was not told in advance about the arrest. He had said that co-operation with the US Drug Enforcement Administration could be called into question as a result.
Mr López Obrador, has yet to congratulate Joe Biden on his election victory, saying he would wait for Donald Trump’s legal challenges to play out — a position a poll showed was backed by most Mexicans. He has denied his silence is a tacit endorsement of Mr Trump’s claims.
“I think the army went crazy after Cienfuegos was arrested,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst. “That might explain the Mexican position on Biden and the election.”
Mr Ebrard acknowledged that the request for dismissal was “unprecedented” but said he had first spoken to Mr Barr before the election and “this has nothing to do with [the election]. These are two different processes”.
However, he made clear that much had been at stake. “If there is no confidence [in Mexican institutions] then there won’t be any in any arena of co-operation, that’s how these things work,” he told a news conference.
Mexico received nearly 750 pages of documentation and evidence in the US case on November 11. But Gen Cienfuegos has not been charged with any crime in Mexico, meaning that if the case against him is dropped, he would return home “as a Mexican citizen”, Mr Ebrard said.
Mr López Obrador has made eradicating corruption and reducing violence two key policy aims but many of Mexico’s most wanted criminals — such as Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — have been convicted and jailed in the US.