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The Cienfuegos Affair: How the U.S. Bungled the Drug Case Against a Mexican General

Mexican President Lopez Obrador and disgraced Gen. Salvator Cienfuegos

One of the biggest, and as it turned out one of the most controversial drug busts by the United States of a foreign national has badly tarnished U.S.-Mexico relations when it comes to the War on Drugs. Was it a case of drug corruption that went almost all the way to the top political office, while ensnaring one of the highest-ranking officers in the military in Mexico? Or was it a manufactured case against the Mexican officer and politician by overeager DEA officers and U.S. officials trying to make political hay just weeks before the U.S. Presidential election? Each side says it's the other who’s been behaving badly.

 

The Case

Despite the negative anti-Latino rhetoric spouted by Donald Trump over the years, Mexican Pres. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as AMLO, was remarkably friendly with the former American president. That cordial relationship grew strained when four-star Mexican Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested by U.S. law enforcement agents at the Los Angeles International Airport on October 15.

Gen. Cienfuegos, who’d served as Mexico’s defense minister from 2008 to 2012, was secretly indicted by the U.S. in Brooklyn, New York on August 19, 2019. Charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana to the United States as well as taking bribes and money laundering, Gen. Cienfuegos was alleged by the DEA to have been working with the ultraviolent Nayarit-based drug cartel, H-2. He was held in U.S. custody while his friends in the Mexican military and government, not to mention friends in the U.S. government, grew steadily more emphatic that Cienfuegos be returned to Mexico.

Mexican Attorney General Gertz Manero and then-U.S. Attorney General William Barr released a joint statement on November 17 seeking a dismissal of U.S. criminal charges against Cienfuegos, citing the “strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States,” and noting that he was already being investigated and would be “if appropriate, prosecuted” by Mexico. U.S. prosecutors in a court filing doubled down, saying:

“The United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant under the totality of the circumstances and therefore require dismissal of the case.”

U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon said she found no reason to “doubt the sincerity of the government’s position” and ordered the charges dismissed. On November 19, Cienfuegos was delivered back to Mexico a free man with no move by the U.S. to freeze his accounts or forfeit his allegedly ill-gotten assets.

 

Mexico Responds

The Mexican military was understandably unhappy about the arrest of their former leader. AMLO threatened to remove diplomatic immunity from U.S. drug agents who work cases in Mexico unless the U.S. released Cienfuegos. Even after he was allowed to return to Mexico, the Mexican Congress still voted to do away with immunity for U.S. drug agents in Mexico and to restrict or expel them. AMLO signed the law making it illegal for Mexican government agencies to share information with their U.S. counterparts.

Along with Cienfuegos' release, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to give Mexico the file of the investigation, meaning the evidence the DEA had gathered. However, Mexico decied not to arrest the General upon his return. AMLO claimed Cienfuegos was completely innocent and called the U.S. investigation as a “fabricated” sham.

Mexican officials subsequently released the DEA’s evidence publicly. The file contains intercepted Blackberry text messages between two since-deceased cartel members, Daniel Silva Garate and his boss and head of H-2, Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, in which they discuss their relationship with a man they dubbed “El Padrino” or “The Godfather” (nicknames for Cienfuegos). Also included in the file are numerous disturbing photos of people being held prisoner, bloodied, hogtied and/or duct-taped, along with a lot of apparent semi-coded discussions about hiring killers, drug business in and outs and photos of automobiles, handguns and automatic weapons. But  the evidence was viewed by Mexico as weak, leading some to speculate there must be more the DEA withheld.

Sgt. Terry Blevins, who was formerly employed as a law enforcement officer in Maricopa and Gila counties in Arizona and is now an executive board member of Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), tells CelebStoner:

“The U.S. is stating emphatically that Gen. Cienfuegos accepted bribes. It wasn’t a great case, not a slam dunk, but there’s probably additional info they aren’t releasing.”

Blevins continued:

“Mexico wanted to punish the U.S. for what they did. It's pretty likely they’ve damaged other cases. If Cienfuegos was involved with the cartel, there’s no way no one in Mexico knew.”

 

Mexico Goes on the Offensive

The day after Mexico unveiled the DEA file on January 16, they published their own report exonerating Cienfuegos, but with hundreds of pages entirely redacted, including almost all names. “This slander directed at me goes beyond me and my family,” Cienfuegos said in one partially redacted statement. “It’s directed at the country’s armed forces and the Mexican government.”

The Office of Mexico’s Attorney General went even further, exonerating Cienfuegos completely with this statement:

“The conclusion was reached that General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda never had any meeting with the criminal organization investigated by American authorities and that he also never had any communication with them, nor did he carry out acts to protect or help those individuals."

 

Biden Inherits Mexico Mess

President Joe Biden called ALMO on January 23. The two leaders discussed immigration issues and the Cienfuegos case, which has caused embarrassment for both countries. ALMO said the conversation was “friendly and respectful.” But beneath the surface there was uneasiness over the controversial case.

Ana Vanessa Cárdenas Zanatta, political science professor at Monterrey Technological and Anahuac universities in Mexico City, contends:

“This gives Biden all the cards to distrust the relationship with Mexico so they can continue in secrecy and resume the pressure on the Mexican government of ‘what are you doing in the fight against drug trafficking?’”

Between immigration, the Trump wall and continuing drug-war issues between the two countries, tensions will continue under Biden. Mexico’s expected legalization of marijuana this year will help if that plan includes reeling the cartels in and ending the illicit Mexican market for marijuana and eventually all drugs, including heroin, cocaine and meth.

 

More Mexico Links

Marijuana Legalization in Mexico Has April Deadline

Where No to Go in Mexico: The 16 Most Dangerous States

A 420 Pot Plantation Grows Outside Mexican Senate

El Chapo Escapes from a Mexican Prison, Again

 

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Preston Peet

Preston Peet

Editor of "Under the Influence, the Disinformation Guide to Drugs," former editor of DrugWar.com, and writer of numerous articles around the globe.