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

Tom Winter
Mexico's then Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda attends a flag-raising ceremony honoring the victims of the September 1985 and 2017 earthquakes at Zocalo square in Mexico City, Mexico September 19, 2018.
Daniel Becerril | Reuters

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."

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"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.

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."