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Ex-Mexican defense chief arrested at LAX is denied bail on drug charges

Court artist's sketch of former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda
A court artist’s sketch of former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who was arrested at LAX on Thursday.
(Bill Robles)

A judge has denied bail to Mexico’s former defense secretary on charges of helping a cartel smuggle drugs into the U.S. in exchange for bribes, rejecting an argument that the retired general was not a flight risk because he was determined to exonerate himself.

“My client has every intention of wanting to clear his name,” Duane Lyons, the attorney for Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, said Tuesday. “He is a dedicated Mexican general who served his country honorably for a number of years, and, if he were to be released on bail and flee, his name and reputation would be ruined.”

U.S. District Judge Alexander MacKinnon in Los Angeles was unconvinced, saying the prospect that the 72-year-old defendant could spend the rest of his life in prison was a powerful incentive to flee.

Cienfuegos did not appear at the 15-minute hearing. His remarks at an initial hearing after his arrest last week at Los Angeles International Airport were limited to procedural questions, making his attorney’s comments Tuesday his first public denial of the explosive charges.

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Lyons said Cienfuegos could post up to $750,000 bail, calling it the retired general’s life savings.

The judge rejected arguments that the U.S. extradition treaty with Mexico would help ensure Cienfuegos’ return if he fled there, siding with prosecutors who argued that hauling him back to the United States could take years.

Mexico’s president says the arrest at LAX of retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering charges is ‘very regrettable.’

Cienfuegos will not challenge a move to New York to face charges, Lyons said. The judge said he wouldn’t order a transfer until Friday, to allow the retired general time to meet with a Mexican attorney who traveled to Los Angeles.

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Cienfuegos was indicted by a grand jury in the Eastern District of New York in August 2019 on charges of conspiracy to participate in international distribution of drugs and money-laundering. He could face a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years in prison if convicted on the conspiracy charges.

Cienfuegos — also known as “El Padrino,” or “The Godfather,” according to the indictment — is accused of helping Mexico’s H-2 cartel smuggle thousands of pounds of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while he was defense secretary from 2012 to 2018 under former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Thousands of intercepted BlackBerry messages show the general ensured that military operations were not conducted against the cartel and that operations were initiated against rivals, according to prosecutors. Cienfuegos allegedly introduced cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s current president, laughed dismissively at his daily news conference Tuesday when mentioning the prosecutors’ contention that Cienfuegos could disappear if released on bond because he has “very important connections in Mexico who could protect and hide him.”


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