Questions Persist: Why Did DOJ Move to Drop Charges Against an Ex-Mexican Defense Minister?

By Allan Lengel

The Justice Department has asked a federal judge to drop drug trafficking and corruption charges against a former Mexican defense minister, the New York Times reports, raising questions as to why?

The official word is that the U.S. wants to let Mexican officials investigate Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who was arrested about a month ago in Los Angeles and arraigned in federal court in Brooklyn where he was awaiting trial. On Tuesday, Attorney General William P. Barr announced an abrupt reversal and plans to drop the charges.

Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda (Wikimedia photo)

Some have found it rather suspicious, particularly since the final decision to charge and then drop charges against the ex-official had to have come from the highest levels of power in Washington.

“That is a pretty stunning turnaround,” Jim Walden, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, tells the Times. “To bring such high-profile charges and then a month later to defer prosecution to a country where we have seen very mixed results in terms of its criminal justice system — that is an eyebrow raiser.”

The general, who was Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018, and was accused of taking bribes in exchange for protecting cartel leaders. The Times notes that Barr and Mexico’s attorney general, Alejandro Gertz Manero stopped short in a statement of promising any charges in Mexico.

“In recognition of the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States, and in the interests of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality, the U.S. Department of Justice has made the decision to seek dismissal of the U.S. criminal charges against former Secretary Cienfuegos, so that he may be investigated and, if appropriate, charged, under Mexican law,” the statement said.

Mexico said it was caught off guard by the charges, which might not seem all that surprising since a move at the level against a Mexican official might be kept secret to prevent the person from being tipped off.

A federal court filing said prosecutors acknowledged that the Trump administration had determined that preserving its relationship with Mexico prevailed over pursuing the case, the Times reports.

. “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,” they wrote in asking a judge to dismiss the charge.

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