General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, 72, the former Mexican secretary of national defense, was taken into U.S. custody at Los Angeles International Airport in California on Oct. 15 for drug-related corruption charges at home.
Cienfuegos became the first high-level Mexican military official ever to be taken into U.S. custody on charges of aiding drug cartels. He pleaded not guilty to drug and money laundering conspiracy charges.
According to a Nov. 17 joint statement from U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero, the U.S. government has accepted Mexico’s request to have Cienfuegos’s case investigated under Mexican law and would seek to dismiss his charges.
“In recognition of the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States, and in the interests of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality, the U.S. Department of Justice has made the decision to seek dismissal of the U.S. criminal charges against former Secretary Cienfuegos, so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law,” the attorneys general said in the joint statement.
“At the request of the Fiscalía General de la República, the U.S. Department of Justice, under the treaty that governs the sharing of evidence, has provided Mexico evidence in this case and commits to continued cooperation, within that framework, to support the investigation by Mexican authorities,” they added.
Mexican officials said Cienfuegos hasn’t been charged yet in Mexico and faces no arrest warrant there. His case will be based entirely on evidence provided by the U.S. government.
— Justice Department (@TheJusticeDept) November 17, 2020
Cienfuegos has served as Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018 under former President Enrique Pena Nieto. While in office, he had worked closely with U.S. counterparts on cross-border criminal matters and was a leading Mexican figure fighting that country’s drug war.
U.S. prosecutors have accused the former defense minister of abusing the power of his office to protect a faction of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, while ordering operations against rival gangs.
Cienfuegos’s arrest came 10 months after U.S. prosecutors charged Mexico’s former top public security chief, Genaro Garcia Luna, with taking bribes to protect the Sinaloa drug cartel once run by drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Garcia Luna has pleaded not guilty.
Reuters contributed to this report.