Mexico To Take Up Investigation Into Former Defense Secretary After U.S. Drops Charges

Published: Wednesday, November 18, 2020 - 3:15pm
Updated: Thursday, November 19, 2020 - 7:18am
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Gobierno de México
Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador answers questions about an investigation into former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos during a press conference on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020.

Just weeks after Mexico’s former Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested in the United States on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, the Justice Department has dropped the charges and agreed to return him to Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says his government will conduct its own investigation into the case.

"That doesn't mean impunity," he promised during a morning press conference Wednesday. "It means the beginning of an investigation that already started after we were sent evidence."

López Obrador rejected the idea that his administration faced military pressure to intervene in the case and said Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office will now decide how to proceed.

"If he will be detained, if he will be released, if he will be subject to an investigation, that now corresponds to the Attorney General," he said. "But we are telling you, there won't be impunity for anyone, and at the same tie, we won't allow crimes to be fabricated under any circumstances."

Cienfuegos was arrested in Los Angeles on Oct. 15 for allegedly aiding a drug cartel while serving as Mexico’s defense secretary from 2012-2018. But Mexican leaders, who had not been informed of the long-term U.S. investigation into Cienfuegos, bristled at his arrest, and threatened to "revise" cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Despite what appeared to be a strong case against Cienfuegos, the Department of Justice decided to drop the charges because, according to court documents, “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant.” And on Wednesday morning federal judge in New York granted the request to dismiss the charges against Cienfuegos.

"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," U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Mexico's Fiscalía General Alejandro Gertz Manero said in a joint statement released Tuesday.

The statement also said the U.S. "has provided Mexico evidence in this case and commits to continued cooperation, within that framework, to support the investigation by Mexican authorities."

“Our two countries remain committed to cooperation on this matter, as well as all our bilateral law enforcement cooperation,” they said in the statement “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 our countries," the statement concluded.

In his morning press conference, López Obrador expressed gratitude that U.S. officials "listened to our case and rectified."

It's still unclear if and when Mexico will ultimately charge Cienfuegos, who will be returned to Mexico by the U.S. Marshals Service in the coming days.

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