The Mexican government threatened to kick out the DEA and limit cooperation with the U.S. on international narcotics investigations unless criminal charges were dropped against a former Mexican defense secretary accused of protecting a drug cartel in exchange for bribes, VICE News has learned.
The threat was never followed up on—but it had the intended effect. On Wednesday, a federal judge acting on the request of U.S. prosecutors dismissed the case against Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s top military official from 2012-2018. The stunning and unprecedented move revealed a diplomatic crisis between the neighboring countries, and showed how far Mexico is willing to go to shield a senior military official from U.S. prosecution.
“The United States determined the broader interest in maintaining that relationship [with Mexico] in a cooperative way outweighs the Justice Department’s interests in pursuing this case,” said Seth DuCharme, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
Mexican officials were caught off guard by Cienfuegos’ arrest on October 16, leaving them both infuriated and embarrassed. As they strategized a response, one of their main points of leverage centered on future cooperation on drug enforcement operations.
An order to expel U.S. law enforcement agents from the country was one of the threats made by Mexican officials, according to two sources familiar with the matter. That order would have included agents from the DEA, which has a strong presence in Mexico and works closely with Mexican security forces on anti-cartel investigations and operations. Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard also considered demanding reciprocity—that Mexican drug enforcement officers would be allowed to conduct investigations on American soil, like the DEA does in Mexico.
A U.S. law enforcement official, who is not authorized to speak publicly, said the threat of kicking out the DEA was “exaggerated,” but it still had to be taken seriously.
“I hope the DOJ gets it together,” the U.S. law enforcement official said. Reacting to the dismissal of the charges, the person added, “We can’t do business like this. We’re embarrassed. We’re ashamed.”
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment. Mexico’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Mexico’s foreign secretary said in October that “a review is being carried out” of bilateral drug enforcement operations in light of the U.S. secrecy around Cienfuegos’ arrest. “There will be cooperation, but it will have to be on other bases,” he said.
The extraordinary reversal in the Cienfuegos case came just over a month after the former general was arrested after landing at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was arriving to take a vacation with his family. The charges against Cienfuegos had been kept secret for over a year, with U.S. investigators withholding the information even from Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
López Obrador, who has relied heavily on the Mexican military to continue the fight against drug cartels launched by his predecessors, began pushing back almost immediately, sources close to the situation told VICE World News.
Attorney General William Barr and Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero issued a joint statement Tuesday announcing the decision to drop the charges against Cienfuegos and explaining that Mexican authorities had opened their own investigation “so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law.”
Ebrard said Tuesday that Mexico had requested evidence against Cienfuegos from the U.S., which was delivered on Nov. 11. Mexican prosecutors are currently reviewing the evidence and deciding how to proceed, Ebrard said. It’s unclear if Cienfuegos will be taken into custody upon arrival in Mexico, but the general will not immediately face charges.
During the court hearing Wednesday, DuCharme, the top federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, told Judge Carol Bagley Amon that the decision to drop the charges against Cienfuegos was made by Attorney General Barr.
DuCharme said his office still “stands behind the case,” but that the decision to drop the charges was based on “pursuing this prosecution against the interests of the United States in foreign relations, in particular the U.S. relationship with Mexico and cooperative law enforcement efforts that touch upon the case.”
Bagley Amon seemed to express reservations about dismissing the charges, referencing the old adage, “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush,” and implying that the U.S. ultimately might not get much in exchange for returning Cienfuegos to Mexico. But the judge nevertheless signed off, explaining there was little she could do to compel the U.S. government to continue a prosecution.
“I have no reason to doubt the government’s determination that Mexican prosecuting authorities sincerely wish to pursue an investigation and possible prosecution of this defendant,” Bagley Amon said. “There’s no suggestion this application is being made in bad faith, or that accepting the government’s reasoning, that it is against the public interest.”
Cienfuegos agreed to be returned to Mexico in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, and he’s expected to be back in his home country by the end of the day on Wednesday.
The U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the Cienfuegos case said the decision to drop the charges had nothing to do with a lack of evidence: “To be clear, he is very much corrupt,” the person said. “That’s not a question.”
Cienfuegos was indicted on four counts of drug conspiracy and money laundering, and charging documents say he “abused his public position’“ to “help the H-2 Cartel, an extremely violent Mexican drug trafficking organization, traffic thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States.”
But in exchange for letting Cienfuegos go, the U.S. official said, Mexico would agree to continue bi-lateral cooperation in investigations against high-ranking cartel members and other corrupt government officials. Prosecutors in Brooklyn are currently pursuing a case against Genaro Garcia Luna, a top security official under ex-president Felipé Calderón, along with several other high-level Mexican federal police officials.
High-ranking members of Mexico’s armed forces have basically been immune from criminal prosecution, even as the military has taken on an expanded role in fighting the drug trade. Corruption is broadly assumed to be endemic in Mexico, with the military often publicly accused by drug traffickers themselves of protecting or assisting rivals in exchange for bribes. The arrest of Cienfuegos seemed to signal that nobody in the country was beyond the reach of the U.S. federal justice system.
“I expect there to be a fall guy somewhere in the chain that was involved with this,” the U.S. official said. “It will be somebody who had no influence and no involvement. It will be someone who makes all the higher-ups feel better.”
Prior to the Cienfuegos fiasco, the law enforcement relationship between the U.S. and Mexico appeared to be improving. While Mexico has always been reluctant to give the DEA and other agencies carte-blanche to operate inside the country, the capture, extradition, and 2018 conviction of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán-Loera was touted by the U.S. as a model of international cooperation.
Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, said the U.S. is a driving force behind anti-drug enforcement actions. “The Americans do all the pinpointing of the kingpins,” he said. “They do all the telephone taps. They sell all the equipment.”
But, Castañeda added, Americans also depend on help from the Mexican army for everything from drug enforcement to anti-terrorism intelligence and protecting American citizens in Mexico.
“Regardless of whether the DEA guys are kicked out or not, the Americans depend enormously on the Mexican army,” Castañeda said. “No matter how much the American guys distrust them, they know they are the only guys around.”
Even with Mexico now promising to continue business as usual, the U.S. official noted that there could be long-term implications of letting Cienfuegos walk free. And that could include Mexican officials opting to play the same card again in the future by applying political and diplomatic pressure to undo the arrest of well-connected individuals.
“The government of Mexico learned a lot here in their dealings with us,” the U.S. official said. “They learned some buttons to push. Strategically, this was a loss.”