MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of fabricating drug trafficking charges against the country's former defense secretary even as his government published hundreds of pages of U.S. files that purported to show detailed evidence of the man's close links with a drug gang.
The decision to denounce U.S. prosecutors on Friday while clearing a top official of charges adds to a crisis in security cooperation for the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.
It follows the Mexican government’s decision to restrict U.S. agents and remove their immunity, seemingly a a slap in the face after US efforts to appease Mexico by releasing retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos to be tried in Mexico.
The U.S. Department of Justice said it was “deeply disappointed” by the closure of the case against Cienfuegos. It also said publication of the evidence violates a legal assistance treaty and calls into question whether the U.S. can continue to share information.
It also said the published material demonstrated the strength of the evidence against Cienfuegos.
López Obrador has leaned heavily on the military for a wide range of projects well beyond security. In this case, he said that while many Mexicans see U.S. courts as “the good judges, flawless ... in this case, with all respect, those that did this investigation did not act with professionalism."
His administration then published a 751-page file that U.S. authorities had shared to support what they intended to be Mexican prosecution of Cienfuegos. Intercepted Blackberry messenger exchanges between since-slain traffickers were marked: “Shared per court order, not for further distribution.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if release of the documents would affect other court cases in the U.S.
The U.S. government dropped its charges against Cienfuegos in November in a diplomatic concession to Mexico and sent him home, where he was immediately released.
López Obrador said Friday that Mexican prosecutors had dropped the case because the evidence shared by the United States had no value to prove he committed any crime.
“Why did they do the investigation like that?” López Obrador said. “Without support, without proof?”
The released documents include purported intercepted text messages between the leader of the H-2 cartel based in the Pacific coast state of Nayarit and a top aide, who allegedly served as go-between with the general, who was often referred to as ”The Godfather” an at one point as “Salvador Sinfuego Sepeda.”
In one exchange, Daniel Silva Garate told his boss, Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, that he'd been picked up by men with short, military-style haircuts and was taken to Defense Department headquarters in Mexico City for a meeting with “The Godfather.”
Silva-Garate tells his boss the “The Godfather” told him “Now we are going to do big things with you … that what you have done is small-time.”
Patrón Sanchez says he wants unmolested routes to ship drugs from Colombia and Silva Garate texts back, “He says that as long as he is here, you will be free … that they will never carry out strong operations,” or raids.
Silva Garate tells his boss the “The Godfather” told him that, “You can sleep peacefully, no operation will touch you.”
Other exchanges describe The Godfather purportedly offering to arrange a boat to help transport drugs, introducing the traffickers to other officials and acknowledging helping other traffickers in the past.
Speaking at his daily news conference Friday, López Obrador, who has made the fight against corruption a theme of his administration, insisted his government would cover up for no one.
“We’re not going to fabricate crimes. We’re not going make up anything,” he said. “We have to act based on the facts, the evidence, the realities.”
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement saying it could still resume prosecution of Cienfuegos if Mexico fails to do so. And in a Thursday night statement, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office went beyond just announcing it was closing the case by clearing the general entirely.
“General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda never had any meeting with the criminal organization investigated by American authorities, and that he also never had any communication with them, nor did he carry out acts to protect or help those individuals,” the office said in a statement.
It said Cienfuegos had not been found to have any illicit or abnormal income, nor was any evidence found “that he had issued any order to favor the criminal group in question.”
Gladys McCormick, an associate professor in history at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said the only surprise was that Mexico didn’t make a better show of looking into Cienfuegos.
“One would think that they would have at least followed through on some semblance of an investigation, even if it was just to put some window dressing on the illusion that the rule of law exists,” McCormick said. “From the Mexican side, this signals the deep-seated control the military as an institution has on power."
López Obrador has given the military more responsibility than any president in recent history, relying on it to build massive infrastructure projects and most recently to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, in addition to expanded security responsibilities.
Cienfuegos was arrested after he was secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 2019. He was accused of conspiring with the H-2 cartel to smuggle thousands of kilos of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while he was defense secretary from 2012 to 2018.
Even though the U.S. sent Cienfuegos home, Mexico’s Congress a few weeks later passed a law that will restrict U.S. agents in Mexico and remove their diplomatic immunity.
Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former chief of international operations, said clearing Cienfuegos “could be the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as U.S.-Mexico cooperation in counter-drug activities.”
“It was preordained that Mexican justice would not move forward with prosecuting General Cienfuegos,” Vigil said. “It will greatly stain the integrity of its judicial system and despite the political rhetoric of wanting to eliminate corruption, such is obviously not the case. The rule of law has been significantly violated.”
AP writer E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.