Wednesday, August 4

Salvador Cienfuegos: the keys to the unexpected release and return to Mexico of the general and former minister whom the US accused of drug trafficking

  • Will Grant
  • BBC correspondent in Mexico


The former Mexican defense minister was arrested last month at the Los Angeles airport in the United States.

In court documents last October, US prosecutors also referred to former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Cepeda as “the Godfather.”

His mafia pseudonym reflected his position at the top of a pyramid that included the military, the Mexican government and the “extremely violent” H2 drug cartel, prosecutors say.

General Cienfuegos was accused of using his high rank to offer unique protection to the poster, alerting them to military operations against them and directing the army and its resources against other rivals.

He was also charged with more prosaic drug trafficking crimes: taking multi-million dollar bribes and bringing heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States.

The general denied all charges.

“Big fish” in the water

Cienfuegos was the highest ranking military officer ever to have been arrested for drug trafficking.

But his arrestno was the product of a joint operation between Mexico and the United States or a common investigation involving agents from both sides of the border.

Officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were so suspicious that the operation would leak that the Mexican government only found out when Cienfuegos, 72, was arrested upon arriving in Los Angeles with his family.

They had caught what is known as “a big shot”.


The United States Department of Justice says it has provided Mexico with evidence and is committed to cooperating in the case.

However, the same DEA and Justice Department officials let what is supposedly the biggest catch of their careers return to swim freely in the water.

When asked a federal judge in New York to dismiss the charges against General Cienfuegos, US prosecutors cited “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations” that they said “outweighed” the government’s interest in pursuing the indictment.

The judge, Carol Bagley Amon, pointed out that to have such a remarkable figure with such serious charges was to have “a bird in hand”, but finally concluded that she had no reason to doubt the “sincerity” of the government’s decision.

So instead of facing a potential lengthy prison sentence in the United States, General Cienfuegos was returned to Mexico as a free man.

Sighs of relief

Given the political earthquake his arrest had caused in Mexico, sighs of relief could almost be heard in government offices and barracks across the country.

“If crimes were committed, is now in the hands of the attorney general investigate, substantiate and sustain them, “said Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard.


Former General Salvador Cienfuegos denied all the serious charges against him.

Anyone responsible, he continued, must be “prosecuted by the Mexican authorities and brought to justice.”

It is however the same justice system as the US prosecutors they considered too corrupt enough to trust him with basic information about who they were investigating.

The immediate conclusion many observers reached was that Attorney General William Barr’s decision to drop the charges was a kind of agreement between Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and the Trump administration.

AMLO, who during his presidential campaign was an outspoken critic of Trump, has surprised many in Mexico by his willingness to accommodate your American counterpart.


López Obrador visited Trump at the White House in 2020.

But not everyone is convinced that the dismissal of this case amounts to a favor.

“Basically, I think the same thing happened that was explained from the prosecution: that the charges were dropped based on broader interests and cooperation in the bilateral relationship “, argues Ana María Salazar, former US Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for policy and support in the fight against drugs.

“I don’t think it was some kind of pre-agreement with AMLO,” agrees Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington.

It may be part of the explanation, says Shifter, but most likely the Mexican president received “a lot of pressure from the military in Mexico to bring it back to Cienfuegos and not process it in the United States. ”

Now that there will be no case in the US, it could be speculated whether the evidence against General Cienfuegos was robust enough to warrant a conviction.

Their lawyers may have argued that any contact made with the H2 cartel was part of an effort more wide to capture Chapo Guzmán, arrested and extradited to the US while Cienfuegos was in charge.

The influence of the Mexican army

Certainly, the failure of a drug trafficking trial against a former defense minister would have been very damaging to officials on both sides of the border.

While the withdrawal of charges could address hidden political considerations about bilateral cooperation, it also certifies the enduring strength of the armed forces in Mexico.

“AMLO has been very satisfied with the performance of the military in practically any task he has asked of them,” observes Roderic Camp, an expert on the Mexican military and a professor at Claremont McKenna University in California.

“It is no secret that AMLO likes to work with the army. His administration will be receptive to calls for this person to be tried in Mexico and not in the United States, “he adds.


The AMLO administration has maintained important cooperative ties with the Mexican armed forces.

It is understood that high command of Mexico were dismayed by the arrest of their former boss.

It is reported that they even pressured the government to threaten expel DEA officials in Mexico, an unprecedented step that would have undone long-lived joint security agreements.

AMLO has denied this threat. But Ana María Salazar warns that there is “a systematic belief within the armed forces” that the DEA charges were unfounded and strained ties between the two countries.

“This trial would have had a catastrophic impact in cooperation against drug trafficking and the defense of national security interests in both countries, “says Salazar, especially since the Mexican president has given the armed forces and the army a greater role in the fight against organized crime.


“This trial would have had a catastrophic impact on cooperation against drug trafficking and the defense of national security interests in both countries,” says an expert.

The apparent protection of General Cienfuegos goes against the current of AMLO’s political coalition and its bases, many of whom are strong critics of the army, especially for its poor human rights record.

But the president cannot assume losing military support. In addition to turning to them to lead the fight against organized crime, he has also given them other responsibilities normally led by civilians.

These include the construction of an airport for an airport for Mexico City and support in the coordinated response against the coronavirus pandemic.

Fight against corruption

Mexico has said it will investigate General Cienfuegos and prosecutors are, of course, likely to dismiss the charges.

But the administration of AMLO has been proud to prosecute important figures, once considered untouchable, from the previous government of Enrique Peña Nieto.

For example, that of Emilio Lozoya, former director of the state oil company Pemex.

López Obrador also plans to hold a referendum to decide whether to end presidential immunity, paving the way for accuse several of his predecessors of corruption, including Peña Nieto.

Michael Shifter, from the Inter-American Dialogue, considers it “very unlikely” that Salvador Cienfuegos sees the interior of a Mexican court, much less that of a prison.

“The levels of impunity in Mexico they are very high and AMLO is interested in maintaining and taking care of his relationship with the army, “he says.

Fall from grace

Cienfuegos may avoid his drug trafficking trial, but his fall from grace has been spectacular.

He was one of the most powerful men in Mexico. Influenced the army and the government.

And in 2018 it had been awarded by the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies of the United States Pentagon. Even so, the case against him was articulated by US prosecutors.

So ultimately, perhaps what matters most in the Cienfuegos debacle is trust, or the lack of it.


General Cienfuegos was one of the most powerful and influential men in Mexico during the Peña Nieto administration.

An effective cross-border partnership to fight drug trafficking relies on mutual trust.

While such trust has been weak at certain points over the past decades, progress has been made in recent administrations, thanks in large part to inter-military relationships.

The arrest of Cienfuegos has changed this and compromised an understanding that “took a long time to develop among the high ranks of the military on both sides,” argues Roderic Ai Camp, the specialist in Mexican studies.

It appears that the case came down to an equation of whether his conviction was worth the loss of confidence it would cause, combined with the defendant’s alleged ability to unleash some serious scandal from inside the court.

In the final analysis, US officials simply decided that they had the most to gain by returning “the godfather” to Mexico.

“Those most adept and responsible in overseeing and implementing one of the most important strategic relationships for the United States probably turned to Attorney General Barr to resolve this as soon as possible,” Salazar says.

“If not, the impact could potentially have lasted one of each“.

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