Mexico Puts Sovereignty First in Ex-Defense Chief’s Drug Case

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Wednesday he sought the dismissal of charges against Mexico’s former defense minister in the U.S. as a matter of national sovereignty, leading the U.S. to free a man accused of aiding a drug cartel while he ran the army.

Shortly after the president spoke, a New York judge ordered the retired general, Salvador Cienfuegos, to be sent back to Mexico where prosecutors are investigating and will decide whether to seek charges.

The decision by U.S. Attorney General William Barr to drop the case was an abrupt about-face for prosecutors who had argued his arrest on American soil last month was due to the risk he’d be shielded from the law in Mexico, where the military is highly regarded. But Lopez Obrador and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard praised the decision and attributed it to diplomatic efforts to get the U.S. to recognize Mexico’s ability to prosecute the case itself.

During the press conference, both Lopez Obrador and Ebrard alternated between thanking Barr for acting swiftly and handing the case over, and criticizing the U.S. for having put them in this position in the first place.

“This investigation should have been shared with Mexico, and we would have prevented all of this,” Ebrard said.

U.S. authorities arrested Cienfuegos at an airport in Los Angeles on October 15 without any advanced warning to Mexican officials. He was accused by the U.S. of helping the H2 drug cartel by targeting its rivals for military action and warning it of U.S. investigations, among other acts.

The detention created huge controversy in Mexico and put the government on the defensive after Lopez Obrador greatly increased the presence of the armed forces in public life. Since the start of his administration in late 2018, the president involved the army in a variety of tasks from building airports to guarding ports and refineries and even setting up bank branches in poor towns around the country.

Now, the matter is in the hands of Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero, who will decide whether the former general is detained, investigated or released, Lopez Obrador said. For now, Cienfuegos will be escorted by U.S. Marshals to Mexico this week as a free man.

Ebrard said that the country had taken the matter directly to U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau and Barr to express their displeasure. Ebrard said that there had been no formal extradition request made because there was no arrest warrant issued in Mexico -- a prerequisite for extradition. Instead, he said, everything had been done through diplomatic channels.

“He’ll be judged here, because an investigation has already been opened,” Lopez Obrador said. “A competent and just Mexican authority will decide whether there are elements to try General Cienfuegos or not.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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