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U.S. drops case against former Mexican defense minister

Mexico's former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos was charged with four counts of conspiring to manufacture and distribute drugs into the United States and money laundering. Photo by Sashenka Gutierrez/EPA-EFE
Mexico's former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos was charged with four counts of conspiring to manufacture and distribute drugs into the United States and money laundering. Photo by Sashenka Gutierrez/EPA-EFE

Nov. 18 (UPI) -- The United States government has agreed to drop its drug trafficking and money laundering case against Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, a former Mexican minister of defense who was arrested last month in California, and return him to Mexico where he will be investigated for potential prosecution, the two countries said in a joint statement.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr with his Mexican counterpart, Alejandro Gertz Manero, made the announcement Tuesday evening, stating all U.S. charges against Cienfuegos have been dismissed "so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged under Mexican law."

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Cienfuegos, 72, was arrested last month at Los Angeles International Airport on three counts of conspiracy to manufacture and distributed heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana and one count of money laundering that were filed under seal in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of New York in August of last year.

A court filing after his arrest arguing for the former defense minister's permanent detention as he posed a flight risk accused him of abusing his position to aid the H-2 Cartel, which it describes as "an extremely violent" Mexican drug gang, to traffic thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States.

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"In exchange for bribe payments, he permitted the H-2 Cartel -- a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder -- to operate with impunity in Mexico," the court filing said.

According to a letter filed Monday asking the court to dismiss the charges against Cienfuegos, the Mexican government was unaware of the sealed indictment against its former defense minister.

After his arrest, Mexico entered negotiations with the United States for his return as it had initiated its own investigation, it said.

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Seth D. DuCharme, acting U.S. attorney for the eastern district of New York, wrote in the letter that evidence in the U.S. case against Cienfuegos "is strong" but that they ask for the charges to be dismissed "as a matter of foreign policy and 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."

Cienfuegos was Mexico's minister of defense from 2012 to 2018 under former former President Enrique Pena Nieto.

The U.S. Justice Department said it has shared its evidence with Mexico at its request.

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"Our two countries remain committed to cooperation on this matter, as well as all our bilateral law enforcement cooperation," the two countries said in the statement. "As the decision today reflects, we are stronger when we work together and respect the sovereignty of our nations and their institutions."

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