BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — Years of investigation into the former leader of Mexico’s army, arrested last month for ties to a violent cartel, has culminated in a dismissal of all charges.
Former Mexican defense secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda had been facing four counts of drug trafficking and money laundering charges, three of which are punishable by a minimum prison sentence of 10 years.
Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme wrote in a letter to the court that the United States and Mexico came to a joint decision to dismiss charges and send Cienfuegos to be prosecuted in Mexico.
“The United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant, under the totality of the circumstances, and therefore require dismissal of the case,” DuCharme wrote.
U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon in Brooklyn issued the order to drop charges Wednesday after a request from U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr.
At a hearing where the President George H.W. Bush-appointed judge read her decision from the bench, Amon noted that there is limited legal precedent for the rare dismissal under Rule 48 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
As DuCharme wrote in his letter, however, “the Second Circuit has explained that a ‘court is generally required to grant a prosecutor’s Rule 48(a) motion unless dismissal is ‘clearly contrary to manifest public interest.’”
Offering some insight as to her thoughts on the matter, Amon told the parties Wednesday that she has no reason to believe the request was made in bad faith.
“The old adage ‘a bird in the hand’ comes to mind,” she said, adding that she has “no reason to doubt” that the U.S. government is acting in the public’s interest, or that Mexico intends to prosecute Cienfuegos.
Mexican government officials have already suggested otherwise, claiming that the arrest of the military general known as el Padrino (the Godfather), was their first notice about the U.S. investigation into Cienfuegos.
“You cannot have close cooperation with all of Mexico’s institutions and at the same time do this,” Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard is said to have told Barr, according to an AP report.
The attorney general’s office of Mexico will decide what happens next. “This does not signify impunity; it means that an investigation will be started,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said.
For now though, Ebrard said, “Gen. Cienfuegos returns to Mexico as a free man.”
Indeed, DuCharme’s letter to the court does not guarantee prosecution in Mexico. It states that discussions between the U.S. and Mexico led to the decision that the U.S. would dismiss charges, “so that Mexico could proceed first with investigating and potentially prosecuting the defendant under Mexican law for the alleged conduct at issue, which occurred in Mexico.”
A removal agreement between the U.S. government and Cienfuegos was unsealed Wednesday after the hearing ended. With his signature, Cienfuegos agreed to voluntarily return to Mexico, and agreed that he has no fear of being persecuted in his home country.
Outside the Brooklyn courthouse on Wednesday, a group of about a dozen protesters voiced their doubts that Cienfuegos will see justice in Mexico.
Carrying Mexican flags and large posters bearing the photos of 43 students who disappeared in 2014, the group braved frigid temperatures this morning to insist that there is cause to charge Cienfuegos with more than the drug-trafficking and money-laundering counts levied last month.
The students disappeared on their way to a demonstration in Mexico City, never seen again after commandeering buses for the journey.
No one has been implicated in the suspected kidnapping, which occurred while Cienfuegos was in charge of Mexico’s army and air force, serving under then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Though Nieto announced in 2015 that the students were abducted and killed by police officers working for a criminal group, an international panel of experts in human rights and forensics discredited Nieto’s government’s findings.
As the court released Cienfuegos into the custody of U.S. marshals on Wednesday, the father of one of the students was among those protesting that Nieto’s army chief is being left to the hands of a government in which he was once highly ranked.
Sylvia Garcia described herself as a “runner” for the student’s father. She joined other protesters who counted to 43 in Spanish and chanted demanding justice.
“We wanted to let [Cienfuegos] know that we don’t agree with the judge, that he has to go to Mexico,” Garcia said, adding that she does not trust the Mexican government to properly handle the prosecution.
“The law in Mexico — it doesn’t exist,” Garcia said.
Some have suggested that the decision to drop Cienfuegos’ charges was motivated in part by López Obrador’s decision not to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden.
“No matter how you slice the pie, this is nothing more than a last-ditch favor to López Obrador,” said Mike Vigil, former chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“López Obrador has been very subservient to Donald Trump on immigration issues and has hesitated in congratulating Joe Biden.”
Ebrard denies any link, saying he spoke with Barr a week before the U.S. election.
As Wednesday’s hearing wrapped up, Cienfuegos shared a moment a relief with his attorney, Edward Sapone.
“You did it,” Sapone said to the homeward-bound general.
Cienfuegos patted his attorney on the shoulder before U.S. marshals escorted him out of the courtroom.
The general was arrested coming off a flight in Los Angeles with his family. Outside the courthouse today, Sapone told reporters his client will board a flight back to Mexico today.
“His plans in the immediate future are to remain with his family as a free man,” Sapone said.
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