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Mexican president accuses U.S. of fabricating drug case against ex-defense chief

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the National Palace in Mexico City
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the National Palace in Mexico City last month.
(Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

In a move certain to escalate tensions with the United States, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of fabricating a case against a former Mexican defense minister who was arrested on drug trafficking charges at Los Angeles International Airport last year.

López Obrador, who in November successfully pressured the U.S. government to drop all charges against retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos and return him to Mexico, said Friday that Mexican prosecutors have decided not to indict the ex-defense chief because evidence shared by the U.S. did not implicate him in any crime.

“Why did they do the investigation like this?” López Obrador said. “Without support, without proof?”

Saying it would bolster his claims, López Obrador made public more than 700 pages of evidence that the U.S. Department of Justice had collected in its case against Cienfuegos, who was accused of helping Mexico’s H-2 cartel smuggle tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana to the United States.

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The evidence includes thousands of intercepted cellphone messages between two alleged cartel members discussing a man they refer to as “Padrino.” U.S. prosecutors say Padrino, or the Godfather, was a code name for Cienfuegos. At one point in the messages, one of the cartel members sent a photograph of Cienfuegos and referred to him as Padrino.

The documents also contain screenshots of messages said by prosecutors to be from Cienfuegos alerting the men to upcoming military operations and discussing delivery of bribes.

The messages are rife with Mexican street slang and spelling errors, which was one reason prosecutors in Mexico say they don’t believe the man described as Padrino was Cienfuegos.

Child soldiers — some as young as 6 — are being conscripted into a vigilante group in Guerrero state.

Such doubts appeared to be key to the Mexico’s attorney general’s office decision not to charge Cienfuegos, who served as defense minister from 2012 to 2018 in the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

“The conclusion was reached that General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda never had any meeting with the criminal organization investigated by American authorities, and that he also never had any communication with them, nor did he carry out acts to protect or help those individuals,” a statement from the attorney general’s office said.

The U.S. Department of Justice responded with a tersely worded statement of its own Friday, saying, “The United States reserves the right to recommence its prosecution of Cienfuegos if the Government of Mexico fails to do so.”

Mexico’s decision to exonerate Cienfuegos has sparked widespread controversy here, with critics accusing López Obrador of reneging on his campaign pledge to end impunity for corrupt officials.

It has also thrust U.S.-Mexico relations into further crisis.

The future of law enforcement cooperation between the countries has been in doubt since Mexico’s Congress passed a new law shortly after Cienfuegos was returned to Mexico that strips U.S. drug agents in Mexico of their diplomatic immunity and greatly limits their investigative abilities. U.S. Atty. Gen. William Barr condemned the measure.

Former Mexican Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda in 2016.
(Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

But perhaps more than anything, the Cienfuegos saga highlights the growing influence of the military in Mexican civilian affairs.

Military leaders were incensed when Cienfuegos was taken into custody by U.S. agents shortly after landing at LAX with his family Oct. 15.

According to a government official with knowledge of the events, military brass complained to López Obrador, urging him to try to win the release of Cienfuegos.

López Obrador, who has put soldiers and marines in control of a vast array of civilian matters in recent years, including important infrastructure projects and the nation’s response to illegal immigration and COVID-19, took their complaints to the U.S.

After the Mexican government threatened to withhold security cooperation with the United States unless prosecutors dropped charges against Cienfuegos, Barr’s Department of Justice caved.

The U.S. decision to drop drug trafficking charges against Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos shines a light on Mexico’s increasingly powerful military.

“The United States determined that the broader interest in maintaining that relationship in a cooperative way outweighed the department’s interest and the public’s interest in pursuing this particular case,” U.S. Atty. Seth DuCharme told a judge Nov. 18.

At the time, a joint U.S.-Mexico statement said Cienfuegos was being released from U.S. custody “so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law.”

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard vowed that Mexico’s investigation into Cienfuegos would “meet the highest standards of effectiveness and honesty.” It would be “almost suicide,” he said, to make a show of bringing the ex-army chief to Mexico and then do nothing.

Cienfuegos was never placed under arrest after he was returned by U.S. officials to Mexico. And less than two months after he returned to Mexican soil, officials cleared him of wrongdoing without ever holding a trial.

Child soldiers — some as young as 6 — are being conscripted into a vigilante group in Guerrero state.

López Obrador said he knew that releasing hundreds of pages of evidence gathered by U.S. prosecutors to the public might anger the United States.

“They may say, ‘How dare we make this document known?’” he said. But, he added, “the evidence that was supposedly collected over many years is not solid.”

López Obrador has proved increasingly willing to antagonize the United States.

He supports the law passed by Mexico’s Congress that will limit the scope of U.S. drug investigations in the country by requiring Mexican officials to get permission from a high-level security panel before meeting with “foreign agents” and then sending the Foreign and Public Security ministries information on what was discussed.

Some in Mexico have applauded López Obrador for standing up for Mexican sovereignty after a more than decadelong drug war fueled by firearms smuggled illegally from the U.S. and Americans’ seemingly limitless appetites for drugs.

But others say the quick exoneration of Cienfuegos has exposed the president as a hypocrite.

López Obrador, a center-left populist, won a landslide election in 2018 for his acerbic critiques of the “mafia of power,” a phrase he coined to describe the elite class that controls the country’s wealth and politics and traditionally stood above the law. He criticized the military, too of wielding undue power and of committing human rights abuses.

“Adiós to the discourse against corruption,” tweeted Julio Hernández, a columnist with La Jornada newspaper, following the government’s announcement that Cienfuegos had been cleared of any charges.

Others said the Cienfuegos decision further consecrated the military’s power in Mexico — a troubling trend given the armed forces’ historic near-blanket immunity from prosecution in human rights and corruption cases.

“The exoneration of Salvador Cienfuegos demonstrates that the armed forces are untouchable … [and] will continue to be outside of democratic scrutiny,” tweeted Denise Dresser, a columnist for Reforma newspaper. “They are the ones who govern, in reality, and have been converted into the new mafia of power.”

Linthicum and McDonnell reported from Mexico City. Fry writes for The San Diego Union-Tribune. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.


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