In October U.S. federal agents in Los Angeles arrested Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s top military official from 2012-2018 on drug smuggling charges. Nicknamed the Godfather, Cienfuegos had been the commanding general of the Mexican army and Mexico’s Defense Secretary.
Cienfuegos was indicted on four counts of drug conspiracy and money laundering, and charging documents, reported Vice, saying he “abused his public position’“ to “help the H-2 Cartel, an extremely violent Mexican drug trafficking organization, traffic thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States.”
According to the Financial Times, as part of the charges, he was accused of having exchanged thousands of unencrypted BlackBerry Messenger communications with the H-2 drug cartel. This spectacular arrest was meant to show that even the highest-ranking corrupt leaders in Mexico would not be immune from U.S. prosecution.
It also immediately threw US-Mexico relations into a tiff.
But now the U.S. agreed to drop all charges and return the retired general to Mexico to supposedly face an investigation there. Why the sudden, unprecedented reversal?
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (often called AMLO) and the Mexican government apparently put strong pressure on the U.S. to drop the charges and instead shows how far Mexico is willing to go to shield a senior military official from U.S. prosecution. It also demonstrates what the U.S. is willing to do give-up to keep its Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operations in Mexico.
Vice noted that:
Mexican officials were caught off guard by Cienfuegos’ arrest on October 16, leaving them both infuriated and embarrassed. As they strategized a response, one of their main points of leverage centered on future cooperation on drug enforcement operations.
An order to expel U.S. law enforcement agents from the country was one of the threats made by Mexican officials, according to two sources familiar with the matter. That order would have included agents from the DEA, which has a strong presence in Mexico and works closely with Mexican security forces on anti-cartel investigations and operations.
Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s foreign minister from 2000 to 2003, was quoted by Vice as saying, “Regardless of whether the DEA guys are kicked out or not, the Americans depend enormously on the Mexican army. No matter how much the American guys distrust them, they know they are the only guys around.”
While this could be seen as a strategic necessity, it proved embarrassing for the DEA and the Department of Justice. It also set a very bad precedent. One U.S. official told Vice, “The government of Mexico learned a lot here in their dealings with us. They learned some buttons to push. Strategically, this was a loss.”