No Bail for Septuagenarian Mexican General Accused of Helping Cartel

This 2016 photo shows Mexico’s then-Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda saluting soldiers at the Number 1 military camp in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

(CN) — A federal judge denied bail Tuesday to the former Mexican defense secretary who was arrested here last week on drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges. 

Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, a retired general also known as “El Padrino” was apprehended after flying into Los Angeles International Airport with his family. He faces a four-count federal indictment in Brooklyn that accuses him of taking bribes to help the H-2 Cartel avoid prosecution. In addition to conspiracy to launder proceeds from selling narcotics, Cienfuegos is charged with conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and import heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.

Three of the charges are punishable by a minimum mandatory prison sentence of 10 years. Citing that severity, and the general’s extensive connections in Mexico, prosecutors portrayed Cienfuegos as a significant flight risk at a court hearing this afternoon in Los Angeles.  

U.S. Magistrate Judge Alexander MacKinnon agreed with that assessment.

“He’s in his 70s, and it wouldn’t take a very long sentence to basically be a life sentence in these scenarios,” said MacKinnon, who was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama.

This scenario, “for anyone in that position, creates an incentive to flee,” MacKinnon added. 

But defense attorney Duane Lyons said the general’s age is precisely the reason he should be allowed to await trial as a free man.

At 72, Cienfuegos is at particular risk for Covid-19, Lyons said, arguing as well that an extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico would ensure the general’s capture if he did jump bail. 

MacKinnon responded, however, by pointing to the lifelong connections Cienfuegos has in Mexico. The magistrate also found it likely that the general could evade prosecution if he were released, given his high-ranking position in the country’s government. Plus, he noted, the extradition process can take years.

Cienfuegos will be transferred to Brooklyn for his trial in New York’s Eastern District. At Tuesday’s hearing in Los Angeles, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Balding made the government’s case to keep Cienfuegos in custody.

The general had managed Mexico’s army and air force as defense secretary from 2012 to 2018 under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto. Following another high-profile arrest last year, Cienfuegos is the second-highest-ranking former Mexican cabinet official to be held in U.S. custody. Genaro García Luna, who is awaiting drug-trafficking charges tied to the Sinaloa Cartel, was the secretary of public security under former Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Like Cienfuegos, Garcia Luna is going to be tried in Brooklyn where drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was given a life sentence last year.

Recognizing the charges staining the past two administrations, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has affirmed that corruption in the country is deep set.

“I have always said that it was not just one single crisis but a process of progressive degradation,” López Obrador said, according to a translation of his remarks by the editor of Mexico Business.

He pledged to suspend or remove any active officials linked to Cienfuegos.

“All those who are involved in the General Cienfuegos affair, who are acting officials in the government or in the Ministry of Defense, will be suspended or presented to the competent authorities,” López Obrador said.

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