US to drop drug charges against Mexican ex-defence chief

New York (AFP) –

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The US Department of Justice announced plans Tuesday to drop drug trafficking and money laundering charges against a Mexican ex-defense minister in US custody so that Mexico can do its own probe and potentially prosecute him.

US authorities in October arrested 72-year-old Salvador Cienfuegos at Los Angeles airport to the surprise and irritation of Mexican officials.

Cienfuegos, a retired general, was accused of conspiring to produce and distribute "thousands of kilograms" of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana in the US between December 2015 and February 2017.

Since the arrest, prosecutors in Mexico opened their own probe, US Attorney General Bill Barr and his Mexican counterpart Alejandro Gertz Manero said in a joint statement.

"In the interests demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality, the US Department of Justice has made the decision to seek dismissal of US criminal charges against former secretary Cienfuegos so that he may be investigated, and, if appropriate, charged under Mexican law," their statement said.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted that under an agreement between the offices of the Mexican and US attorney generals, Cienfuegos would "be returned to Mexico to be prosecuted here if agreed by the judge in the case."

Cienfuegos was detained at Los Angeles International Airport on October 15 while on a trip with his family, and charged with drug trafficking and money laundering.

The Mexican government complained bitterly that it was being kept in the dark about Cienfuegos's case.

The US indictment was filed in August 2019, but made public only after Cienfuegos's arrest, apparently due to suspicion of corruption among high-ranking Mexican officials.

At Mexico's request and working "under the Treaty that governs the sharing of evidence," the US Department of Justice "has provided Mexico evidence in this case and commits to continued cooperation ... to support the investigation by Mexican authorities," the statement read.

Cienfuegos earlier pleaded not guilty to the US charges, which date to when he was a key figure in President Enrique Pena Nieto's 2012-2018 administration.

The charges against Cienfuegos appear to have come from witnesses in the US trial of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who was sentenced in New York to life in prison in July 2019.