Mexico Exonerates Ex-Defense Chief Who Was Freed by the U.S.

MEXICO CITY — The authorities in Mexico say they will bring no charges against a former top military official who was arrested in the United States last year on drug-trafficking and corruption charges, only to be sent home at the request of the outraged Mexican government.

The former defense minister, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, had been accused by the U.S. authorities of taking bribes in exchange for protecting drug cartel leaders. He was arrested at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles in October.

General Cienfuegos was apparently known as “El Padrino,” or The Godfather, by one of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels. Officials said General Cienfuegos directed military operations away from the criminal group in exchange for large sums of cash. But the Justice Department abruptly dropped the case against him in November, and he was allowed to return to Mexico.

Late Thursday night, the Mexican attorney general’s office said in a statement that General Cienfuegos — who served as defense minister in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration from 2012 to 2018 — “never had any encounter with the members of the criminal organization.”

They also said he had not provided any kind of protection to cartel members and had never received any “illegal income.”

The news is a new blow to U.S. officials, particularly those in the State Department and in Congress, who were stunned by the Justice Department’s decision to free General Cienfuegos and allow him to face justice in Mexico.

Relations between the United States and Mexico over security operations have become increasingly fraught since the general’s arrest. In December, Mexican lawmakers approved legislation to regulate the activities of foreign agents in the country, potentially limiting cooperation with American narcotics officers.

The new law was greeted with immense frustration by U.S. officials, including William P. Barr, then the attorney general, who said in a statement that the bill would make “cooperation between our countries more difficult.”

Yet General Cienfuegos’s exoneration will also most likely prompt outrage in Mexico, given that the Mexican authorities had vowed to fully investigate the accusations against him.

At a news conference in December, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said that “it would be very costly” for Mexico to “do nothing” after having asked for the charges against the former defense chief to be dropped and for him to be returned home.

“It would be almost suicidal,” Mr. Ebrard said.

Still, the fact that General Cienfuegos will face no charges is not altogether surprising in a country where impunity for the well-connected is exceptionally high, even for minor crimes, and where more than 90 percent of homicides go unsolved.

In its statement, the attorney general’s office said that General Cienfuegos was made aware on Jan. 9 of the charges against him by the U.S. authorities, as well as of the results of the Mexican authorities’ own investigation. The general was then allowed to offer evidence in his defense.

Less than a week later, all charges were dropped.

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