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U.S. drops drug charges against Mexican general, clearing way for transfer

Record-long U.S.-Mexico drug tunnel discovered
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A federal judge in Brooklyn approved the dismissal of narcotic and drug-trafficking charges against a former defense minister of Mexico who was accused of taking bribes from a brutal cartel to facilitate the shipment of thousands of pounds of drugs into the U.S.

General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was indicted by a grand jury in 2019 and arrested in Los Angeles in October. He is the highest-ranking Mexican official ever charged with drug trafficking, and pleaded not guilty last month.

The Justice Department moved to dismiss the case so Cienfuegos could be transferred to Mexico and potentially face charges there. Attorney General William Barr announced an agreement with the Mexican government to transfer custody of Cienfuegos on Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Carol Amon of the Eastern District of New York approved the request to drop the charges in court on Wednesday. While she characterized the case as "very serious charges against a significant figure," she said she had no reason to doubt the agreement between the neighboring nations and granted the motion to dismiss the indictment.

Prosecutors had charged Cienfuegos, known as "El Padrino," with drug trafficking and money laundering, alleging he took bribes from the violent H-2 cartel and allowed them to "operate with impunity." His actions facilitated the manufacture and distribution of drugs like heroin and cocaine while serving as Mexico's defense minister, the 2019 indictment said. Cienfuegos allegedly knew that the drugs produced would then be trafficked to the U.S. and worked to hide his profits from the illicit activity from authorities. He served as defense minister from 2012 to 2018.

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An artist's rendering of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda appearing in federal court in New York on Wednesday, November 18, 2020. Jane Rosenberg

In court on Wednesday, prosecutors informed the judge that they had "no concern" with the strength of the case they brought against Cienfuegos, but said they had to balance their desire to prosecute the defendant with "the broader interest" of U.S. foreign policy and maintaining a strong law enforcement relationship with Mexico. 

When asked by the judge if this decision to dismiss the charges was made at the highest level of government, prosecutors confirmed that Barr agreed to the dismissal in coordination with the Mexican government.  

The general's American attorneys also agreed to the arrangement.

Cienfuegos, who was present in court on Wednesday and answered translated questions under oath about his understanding of the agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, will now voluntarily leave the U.S. in the custody of U.S. Marshals. According to prosecutors, his transfer to Mexico will occur "as soon as practicable."

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