Attorney General Barr wants to drop U.S. drug case against former Mexican defense minister

The Justice Department has asked a judge to drop criminal charges against Mexico’s former defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who had been accused of helping one of Mexico’s drug cartels “operate with impunity” while using the Mexican military to hurt its rivals.

In a joint statement, Attorney General William Barr and Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero said the U.S. had dropped the charges so that Cienfuegos “may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law.”

“The U.S. Department of Justice … has provided Mexico evidence in this case and commits to continued cooperation, within that framework, to support the investigation by Mexican authorities.

Cienfuegos, who served as defense secretary under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012 to 2018, was taken into U.S. custody in October at Los Angeles International Airport.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn had charged Cienfuegos, 72, with accepting bribes from the H-2 cartel, based in Nayarit and Sinaloa, Mexico, in exchange for his services while he was defense secretary. He faced life in prison if convicted on all counts.

Mexico’s former Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda.Daniel Becerril / Reuters file

The judge overseeing the case has yet to rule on the motion to dismiss. Earlier Tuesday he directed the acting U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, Seth DuCharme, to personally sign the motions to dismiss and for him to appear at a pre-scheduled status conference to be held tomorrow.

In court documents from the Cienfuegos case, prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York described the H-2 cartel as having distributed thousands of pounds of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana.

“In Mexico,” said an October filing, “the H-2 Cartel trafficked in hundreds of lethal firearms and committed countless acts of horrific violence, including torture and murder, in order to protect against challenges from rival drug trafficking organizations, fight for territory and silence those who would cooperate with law enforcement.”

Cienfuegos’ detention memo says the DEA intercepted thousands of Blackberry Messenger messages that prove he helped make sure military operations weren’t conducted against the H-2 cartel. Prosecutors alleged that he initiated military operations against rival drug cartels and helped locate maritime transportation for H-2’s drugs, and acted to expand H-2’s territory to Mazatlán and later the rest of Sinaloa.

Prosecutors also alleged that Cienfuegos introduced the cartel’s senior leadership to other corrupt Mexican officials who allegedly took bribes and warned H-2 about U.S. law enforcement investigations, including the use of witnesses and informants. One supposed informant was allegedly killed because H-2 believed he was working with U.S. law enforcement, even though prosecutors say he wasn’t.

Earlier this year, Barr said, “One of our highest priorities must remain destroying the Mexican cartels. … [T]heir trafficking is largely responsible for the deaths, as we all know now, of 70,000 Americans a year.”

In his joint statement Tuesday with the Mexican attorney general, Barr said, “Our two countries remain committed to cooperation on this matter, as well as all our bilateral law enforcement cooperation. 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.”