Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has insisted his government did not threaten to expel U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents from Mexico in retaliation for former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos’ arrest on American soil.
His statement came on the same day that Mexico’s foreign secretary Marcelo Ebrard the country no longer wants officials accused of corruption to be put on trial in the United States, a move that could scale back a tradition that saw most of Mexico’s corruption cases tried north of the border.
A federal judge on Wednesday granted a U.S. government request to drop drug charges against Cienfuegos and return him to Mexico. He had been arrested on drug and money laundering charges at Los Angeles International Airport in October.
U.S. news outlets reported that Mexico had threatened the expulsion of U.S. agents over the diplomatic dispute. According to The Associated Press, two officials, one Mexican and one American, said Mexico’s tactics involved threatening to expel the DEA’s regional director and agents unless the U.S. dropped the case.
But they said that was only part of the negotiation. They would not elaborate.
The officials asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
But Lopez Obrador rejected these accounts during his regular morning news conference on Thursday
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador denied Thursday he threatened to ban the Drug Enforcement Administraiton [DEA] from operating in his country after former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested on drug and money laundering charges at Los Angeles International Airport in October
Former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos (pictured in a November 2013 ceremony in Mexico City) had all charges dismissed by United States Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday. Cienfuegos was accused by U.S. prosecutors of drug trafficking and laundering money for the Beltrán Leyva Organization’s H-2 cartel
‘They say we threaten to expel agents of foreign [governments],’ he said. ‘No one was threatened. The only thing we did is that through diplomatic channels we expressed our disagreement and they understood us very well and it was resolved.’
‘You cannot allow foreign agencies to try Mexicans if there is no proof. Just because they are other countries’ legal institutions, does that make them the owners of justice and rectitude,’ López Obrador said.
General Cienfuegos, defense secretary under Mexico’s then-President Enrique Peña Nieto, was arrested in October at the Los Angeles international airport and accused by U.S. prosecutors of collaborating with one of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels.
Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard reiterated that Mexico had warned of a review of security cooperation in retaliation for not being given advance notice about the investigation and arrest, but emphasized there was no specific threat regarding expelling agents.
Both the Mexican president and foreign minister emphasized that Mexico was committed to conducting a proper investigation of the powerful general.
‘We have no doubt that the attorney general’s office will carry out … an investigation commensurate with the prestige of Mexico and the dignity of our country,’ said Ebrard.
‘Those who are responsible, according to our laws, should be prosecuted, tried and, when appropriate, sentenced in Mexico by Mexico, and not in other countries,’ Ebrard added.
In response to Ebrard’s comments, a U.S. Justice Department official said no new agreements had been reached between the two countries.
A spokesman for President López Obrador later said the country was still willing to extradite officials or drug traffickers
Presidential spokesman Jesús Ramírez told The Associated Press extradition and other cooperation treaties between the U.S. and Mexico would be maintained, but the country wants formal information sharing and extradition processes.
‘What we don’t want are surprise actions,’ Ramirez said.
Regarding drug traffickers and others whose crimes affect the United States, Ramírez said, ‘that justifies them being tried in the United States.’
Cienfuegos, 72 – nicknamed El Padrino, or ‘The Godfather’ – was taken into custody at Los Angeles International Airport last month after being accused of using his office to protect Mexico’s H-2 narcotics cartel.
Cienfuego’s arrest reportedly sparked outrage among the highest officials in the Mexican government, who had been kept in the dark about the DOJ’s plans despite a long history of working closely with the US on drug cases.
United States Attorney General William Barr dropped the charges during a hearing in New York on Wednesday.
Acting US Attorney Seth DuCharme said the decision was based on the ‘balancing of interests’ between pursuing prosecution and of deference to the US’s relationship with Mexico.
By Wednesday evening, Cienfuegos was traveling back home on a charter plane and was released upon landing in Toluca.
Cienfuegos (seen in the above court sketch on Wednesday) will likely face charges in Mexico for using his office to protect Mexico’s H-2 narcotics cartel
Cienfuegos is seen left alongside Mexico’s then-President Enrique Pena Nieto during the annual Independence Day military parade in Mexico City’s main square in September 2016
Cienfuegos grew to become a powerful figure in Mexico’s drug war in which the army battled cartels across the country.
But U.S. authorities allege that he provided his vast military and government contacts to aid the Beltrán Leyva Organization’s H-2 cartel while in charge of Mexico’s army from 2012 to 2018 under former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Cienfuegos was charged by U.S. prosecutors with four counts of drug trafficking and money laundering, and appeared in a Los Angeles court before he was extradited to New York for his trial.
Cienfuegos’ protection allegedly helped the cartel ship tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States without significant interference from the Mexican military.
The H-2 cartel made millions of dollars through the distribution of drugs in New York, North Carolina, Minnesota, Ohio and Las Vegas and Los Angeles, court documents say.
Thousands of Blackberry messages cited in the court documents show that while overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Mexican Army and the Mexican Air Force, Cienfuegos used his official position to introduce top Mexican officials to H-2 cartel leaders, according to prosecutors.
However, Mexico’s former Attorney General Ignacio Morales cautioned in an interview with newspaper El Universal that the text messages would not stand in a Mexican court because of the way they were acquired.
‘The evidence was obtained, in light of our law, illegally, because judicial authorization was not requested, nor was the judicial cooperation agreement or the evidence validation agreement activated,’ Morales said.
‘Consequently, such evidence, obtained in this way, should, in my opinion, be discarded.’
Some international security analysts have questioned whether Cienfuegos will be properly prosecuted in Mexico.
‘The Mexican attorney general may follow through on the pretense of investigating Cienfuegos, but as what happened in the U.S., nothing will come of it because he is untouchable,’ Gladys McCormick, a security analyst at Syracuse University in New York told Reuters.