US to drop drug charges against Mexican ex-defence chief

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

Acting US attorney for the eastern district of New York Seth DuCharme asked the judge in charge of the case, Carol Amon, to release Salvador Cienfuegos from prison and send him back to Mexico escorted by marshals.

US authorities in October arrested the 72-year-old Cienfuegos at a 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.

Cienfuegos pled not guilty to the charges — which date to when he was a key figure in President Enrique Pena Nieto’s 2012-2018 administration –before a New York judge last Thursday. He is due to appear before judge Amon Wednesday for a new hearing.

Court documents presented to Amon on Monday show that the US government asked her to keep the information about the dismissal of the charges secret until Wednesday’s hearing, because publication “could cause harm to the government’s relationship with a foreign ally.”

The judge asked prosecutors for further explanation, and when she did not receive them, she decided to release the documents Tuesday night.

In the documents, DuCharme assures that Cienfuegos “will voluntarily depart the United States and be expeditiously transported to Mexico in the custody of the United States Marshals Service.”

DuCharme also asked the judge that the withdrawal of the charges not go into effect until the defendant “enters and has been released in Mexico.”

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