DOJ moves to scrap drug trafficking charges for Mexico’s former military chief, citing ‘sensitive foreign policy considerations’


The US Justice Department has called to drop all charges against Mexico’s ex-defense secretary, recently nabbed on drug trafficking charges, with federal prosecutors arguing his home country ought to handle the “sensitive” case.

Attorney General Bill Barr said the government had requested a dismissal of its case against Salvador Cienfuegos in a joint statement with his Mexican counterpart on Tuesday, noting that Mexican authorities will now consider charges of their own.

“In the interests of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality, the United States Department of Justice has made the decision to seek dismissal of the US criminal charges against former Secretary Cienfuegos, so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged under Mexican law,” the statement says.

The attorney general went on to say that the DOJ had shared evidence on Cienfuegos with Mexico’s top justice official, Alejandro Gertz, vowing continued support for his investigation.

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard hailed the move as a “positive” and “unprecedented” decision soon after it was announced, adding that it illustrated US respect for his country’s sovereignty. He also insisted, however, that Cienfuegos would receive a fair shake in court. 

“The charges will have to be substantiated and proved,” Ebrard said. “We do not see this as a path to impunity, but rather as an act of respect for Mexico and the Mexican armed forces.”

Federal prosecutors also told a Brooklyn judge on Tuesday that Cienfuegos’ case was tied up with “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations,” adding that those “outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution.” While they did not specify the sensitive matters, the court demanded greater clarity on the prosecution’s argument, saying it “does not understand” their insistence to keep certain documents under wraps and vowing to unseal them without a “more fulsome explanation.”

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FILE PHOTO. Mexico's General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda speaks in Mexico City.
Mexico’s ex-defense minister faces five drug trafficking charges in US

The 72-year-old former general was arrested in Los Angeles last month on a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warrant and charged with five counts linked to narcotics trafficking. He was accused of working with a powerful drug cartel based in Mexico, taking bribes and organizing military operations against its rivals while still in office.

In their arguments to the Brooklyn judge, the US prosecutors said that once Mexican authorities were made aware of Cienfuegos’ arrest, discussions began over how to proceed with the case, as a separate probe was also opened in Mexico. They ultimately agreed to allow the ex-official to be tried under Mexican law first, after a dismissal of the US indictments. The prosecutors also noted that Cienfuegos had agreed to return to Mexico voluntarily in the custody of US Marshals.

On the heels of the request to drop the charges, a number commentators and netizens have speculated that Cienfuegos would be let “off the hook” or receive a mere “slap on the hand” in Mexican courts. Meanwhile, Frank Figliuzzi – an ex-FBI official-turned-“NBC News National Security Contributor” – unloaded on Barr, blasting his call to dismiss the case against a man he claimed “is responsible for thousands of US drug deaths and the murder of a US informant.”

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