US drops case against Mexico ex-minister

Jonathan Stempel and Daina Beth Solomon
·2-min read

A federal judge has granted a US government request to drop drug charges against former Mexican defence minister Salvador Cienfuegos, a move Mexico said would restore trust in severely strained security cooperation ties.

US District Judge Carol Bagley Amon granted the request at a hearing in Brooklyn, New York after Tuesday's abrupt announcement by US Attorney General William Barr and Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero that the US case would end.

"Although these are very serious charges against a very significant figure, and the old adage 'a bird in the hand' comes to mind, I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the government's decision," the judge said at the hearing.

Cienfuegos, 72, served as Mexico's defence minister from 2012 to 2018 under former president Enrique Pena Nieto, and the case prompted the current government to threaten a review of agreements allowing US agents to operate in Mexico.

Seth DuCharme, the Acting US Attorney in Brooklyn, said his office "stands behind its case" against Cienfuegos, but that its interest in the prosecution was outweighed by the "broader interest" in maintaining cooperation between US and Mexican law enforcement authorities.

Appearing in the court, Cienfuegos said he was in agreement with the request to drop charges.

Cienfuegos has signed a removal agreement that would allow his return to Mexico, his lawyer Edward Sapone said.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcel Ebrard said the retired army general could be flown back within days.

Cienfuegos was arrested last month in Los Angeles International Airport, becoming the first Mexican former defence official taken into US custody for drug-related corruption at home.

He pleaded not guilty to drug and money laundering conspiracy charges.

But US prosecutors said "sensitive and important foreign policy considerations" now outweighed the US government's interest in continuing to prosecute Cienfuegos and therefore their case against him should be dismissed.

Ebrard said the arrest had damaged the trust needed for bilateral cooperation fighting drug gangs.

He celebrated the decision to drop the case and said it laid a foundation for future cooperation.

Cienfuegos has not been charged in Mexico and faces no arrest warrant there.

The Mexican government said its case was based entirely on evidence provided by the United States.

Cienfuegos will return to Mexico as a free man, Ebrard said, adding that the attorney general's office was studying the US evidence and would decide next steps.