Barr Gets Judge’s Signoff to Drop Mexican Drug-Traffic Case
(Bloomberg) -- A federal judge dismissed drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges against a former Mexican defense minister after Attorney General William Barr asked the court to drop the case to preserve the U.S. law enforcement partnership with Mexico.
Despite strong evidence against General Salvador Cienfuegos, prosecutors said in a court filing, the “United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant.”
The dismissal sends the case to Mexican investigators and an uncertain fate. The U.S. had justified Cienfuegos’s arrest last month on American soil by citing the risk that drug traffickers and former government officials could shield him from prosecution in Mexico.
“This was a decision made by the attorney general of the United States?” U.S. District Judge Carol Amon asked Seth DuCharme, the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, in a hearing on Wednesday.
“Yes,” DuCharme said.
Cienfuegos, who pleaded not guilty on Nov. 5, has been held without bail on charges that he helped a narcotics-trafficking ring while he was Mexico’s defense chief. Barr’s decision to drop the case raises questions about whether Cienfuegos will be properly investigated and why the U.S. changed course so suddenly.
In a related case in September 2019, Edgar Veytia, the former attorney general of Mexico’s Nayarit state, was sentenced to 20 years in a U.S. prison after he pleaded guilty to an international drug conspiracy involving the same cartel. The U.S. said Veytia, like Cienfuegos, used his position as the top law enforcement officer in his region to assist drug traffickers.
And Mexico’s former top federal police official, Genaro Garcia Luna, is being held without bail after he pleaded not guilty to U.S. charges that he took millions of dollars in bribes to protect convicted kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa drug cartel.
In an unusual demand, the judge made DuCharme himself appear in court to explain the turnabout.
“The office stands behind its case,” he said of the Eastern District of New York. While he had “no concern” over the strength of the case, he told Amon, “there was a balancing, frankly, of interest” involving “the United States’ relationship with Mexico and with cooperative law enforcement efforts that touch upon this case, including public corruption.”
Amon, who was appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush, said that “the old adage ‘A bird in the hand is ...’ comes to mind.” But she granted the dismissal application, noting that “the scope of judicial review is quite limited” in the matter.
“There is no reason to doubt the government’s determination that the Mexican prosecuting authorities sincerely wish to pursue an investigation and possible prosecution of the defendant,” Amon said. She said there was “no suggestion that this application is being made in bad faith” or that accepting the government’s reasoning was “against the public interest.”
The U.S. says it intercepted thousands of BlackBerry Messenger communications showing that Cienfuegos, who was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport, helped the H-2 drug cartel. He allegedly located maritime transport for its shipments and even introduced senior leaders of the cartel to other Mexican government officials willing to help the group in exchange for bribes.
He is also accused of warning the cartel about ongoing U.S. law enforcement investigations into the group and its use of cooperating witnesses and informants, which ultimately resulted in the murder of a cartel member.
“The charges will have to be substantiated and proved,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said at a news conference on Tuesday. “We do not see this as a path to impunity, but rather as an act of respect for Mexico and the Mexican armed forces.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.