U.S. Judge Agrees to Dismiss Case Against Mexico Ex-Defense Minister
A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed drug-trafficking and corruption charges against Mexico’s former defense minister, granting an extraordinary request that prosecutors said was made out of foreign-policy concerns and driven by Attorney General William Barr.
The decision to drop charges against Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who had been accused of taking bribes in exchange for protecting cartel leaders, came after Mexico threatened to cut off bilateral cooperation with U.S. authorities unless the general was returned home, top Mexican officials said.
“Although these are very serious charges against a very significant figure… I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the government’s position,” Judge Carol Bagley Amon of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn said. She spoke during a short hearing before agreeing to dismiss the indictment.
“尽管这些都是对一个非常重要的人物…的非常严重的指控。我没有理由怀疑政府立场的诚意，“布鲁克林美国地区法院法官Carol Bagley Amon说。在同意驳回起诉书之前，她在一次简短的听证会上发表了讲话。
Gen. Cienfuegos, who was arrested in Los Angeles in October at the request of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, will soon be escorted back to Mexico by U.S. marshals to face possible prosecution, the judge said.
Mexico is investigating the former general using evidence gathered by U.S. prosecutors but has no formal charges against him, meaning he will return as a free man, foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard said. Many security experts in Mexico said they doubted the general will ever be convicted in the country’s weak judicial system.
The case “will be compromised,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat. “The track record of Mexico acting with any kind of integrity on this sort of case doesn’t exist.”
Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme offered few new glimpses into the unusual decision, saying only that the case was strong but the U.S. interest in maintaining its relationship and law-enforcement partnerships with Mexico outweighed the Justice Department’s interest in pursuing it. He said Mr. Barr made the decision himself in consultation with Mexican officials.
“There is no concern I have with the strength of our case,” Mr. DuCharme told the judge.
Gen. Cienfuegos was the highest-ranking Mexican official ever arrested for alleged drug-related corruption. He served as defense minister from 2012 to 2018 in then-President Enrique Pea Nieto’s administration and led the army’s war on drug cartels.
Cienfuegos将军是墨西哥有史以来因涉嫌毒品腐败而被捕的最高级别官员。2012年至2018年，他在时任总统恩里克·培尼亚·涅托(Enrique Pea Nieto)的政府中担任国防部长，并领导了军队打击贩毒集团的战争。
But the arrest deeply embarrassed the Mexican government, which was not told about the investigation into its former top military official. Mexico’s foreign minister, Mr. Ebrard, said on Wednesday that Mexico threatened to withhold security cooperation with the U.S. unless Mr. Barr agreed to return the disgraced general.
“It is in your hands. You can’t have both,” Mr. Ebrard said he told Mr. Barr. “You cannot have close cooperation with all of Mexico’s institutions and at the same time do this.”
Mr. Ebrard said he did not threaten specific action like barring U.S. anti-drug agents from working in Mexico, but added, “I imagine it worried him.” The decision to drop the charges showed that for the U.S. “the architecture of cooperation...is more important” than this particular act, Mr. Ebrard said.
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised an impartial investigation. “A competent and honest Mexican authority will decide if there are elements to bring Gen. Cienfuegos to trial or not, in accordance with legal principles,” Mr. López Obrador said Wednesday.
墨西哥总统安德烈斯·曼努埃尔·洛佩斯·奥布拉多(Andrés Manuel López Obrador)承诺进行公正调查。洛佩斯·奥布拉多周三说，“一个称职和诚实的墨西哥当局将根据法律原则，决定是否有必要对Cienfuegos将军进行审判。”
Mexico’s foreign ministry hailed Mr. Barr’s decision. The decision “shows the strength in the bilateral relationship… and is a sign of the confidence of the U.S. government in Mexico’s institutions of justice,” the ministry said in a tweet.
At a press conference earlier Wednesday, Mr. Ebrard said the U.S. had jeopardized the whole of Mexico’s security cooperation with the U.S. by investigating and arresting Mr. Cienfuegos without giving any warning to the Mexican government. He likened the case to a pillar which if toppled would bring the whole edifice of bilateral cooperation tumbling down.
Mr. Ebrard said that bilateral cooperation rests on U.S. respect of Mexico’s sovereignty and confidence in Mexico’s authorities. The decision to drop charges against Mr. Cienfuegos showed that for the U.S. “the architecture of cooperation of those two pillars is more important” than this particular act, Mr. Ebrard said.
The move to drop the charges shocked some current and former law-enforcement officials. The case had been years in the making and painted a portrait of deeply rooted corruption in Mexico’s armed forces.
Many agents within the Drug Enforcement Administration were angered by the decision, current and former law-enforcement officials said. Several law-enforcement officials said the Justice Department didn’t notify the agency or the agents who had worked on the case and top officials offered no explanation to the workforce.
“It’s demoralizing because this should have gone to trial,” a veteran DEA agent working in Latin America said. “It makes us look like fools… We lose credibility. It’s an embarrassment.”
Some leading Democrats in the U.S. were upset by the decision. Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the move, saying it undermined faith in the U.S. judicial system and encouraged impunity at the highest levels in Mexico.
美国一些主要民主党人对这一决定感到不安。参议院外交关系委员会(Senate Foreign Relations Committee)最高民主党参议员梅嫩德斯(Bob Menendez)批评了这一举动，称这削弱了人们对美国司法系统的信心，并助长了墨西哥最高层的有罪不罚现象。
“For someone who launched his entire presidency by conjuring xenophobic images of druglords running amok along the U.S.-Mexico border, there is no explanation for Attorney General Barr’s decision to abruptly drop drug trafficking charges against General Cienfuegos,” he said in reference to President Trump.
Mr. Barr’s decision was reminiscent of abrupt reversals he has ordered in other sensitive criminal cases, which have drawn criticism even among some of his closest allies.
Mr. Barr has taken a personal interest in U.S.-Mexico relations. He has pushed for changes by the Mexican government, including bringing Mexico’s marines back to counternarcotics enforcement and accelerating extradition of suspects wanted for crimes in the U.S., according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Barr visited Mexico at least twice last winter, amid growing alarm in Washington at Mexico’s failure to crack down on drug gangs.
A DEA contractor working in Latin America said the U.S. government decided to hand Gen. Cienfuegos back to Mexico under intense pressure from Mr. Obrador. He said the Mexican leader may have feared that Mr. Cienfuegos would implicate other high-ranking, active-duty military personnel and turn much of the army against him.
In the indictment, U.S. prosecutors had said the general introduced the cartel to other army officers willing to be bribed.
A senior U.S. counter-drug official, who has worked closely with the DEA and federal prosecutors for years, agreed, adding, “This guy [Cienfuegos] was in power down there, as minister, for years. He could probably sink two or three administrations [in Mexico]. They had to pull whatever they could out of the hat to keep this guy from talking.”
The Mexican president said Wednesday he did not act “under pressure” from anyone and praised the armed forces.
The strength of Mexico’s lobbying on the case and the fact the U.S. agreed is a worrisome sign of the clout Mexico’s army officials hold in political circles and their intense desire to protect themselves, said Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexican security analyst and former top member of the country’s national security agency. He noted that high-ranking military personnel in Mexico are rarely tried in court.
墨西哥安全分析人士、前墨西哥国家安全局(National Security Agency)高级官员格雷罗(Eduardo Guerrero)说，墨西哥在此案上游说的力度以及美国同意的事实令人担忧，表明墨西哥军方官员在政界的影响力以及他们保护自己的强烈愿望。他指出，墨西哥的高级军事人员很少在法庭上受审。
“This intense lobbying by the army reveals that their concern was huge because the U.S. could also go against them in the future. They are used to impunity and they will continue to enjoy that impunity,” he said.
More than other recent presidents, Mr. López Obrador has relied on the army for major parts of his governing plan, including building key infrastructure projects such as Mexico City’s new airport and corralling and deporting would-be Central American migrants heading to the U.S.
In the past, Mexico has prosecuted some high-profile cases, including former antidrug czar Gen. Jesús Guttiérez Rebollo, arrested in 1997 for taking bribes from a cartel and sentenced to 40 years in jail. He died in prison in 2013.
过去，墨西哥曾起诉过一些备受瞩目的案件，包括前禁毒沙皇赫苏斯·古铁雷斯·雷博洛将军(Gen.Jesús Guttiérez Rebollo)，他于1997年因收受一个卡特尔的贿赂而被捕，并被判处40年监禁。他于2013年在监狱中去世。
But Mexico’s judicial system is also far weaker than the U.S.’s. More than nine in 10 crimes in Mexico are never reported or punished, an impunity rate of about 93%, according to the government’s statistics agency.
“I see very little chances that he would be indicted and found guilty in Mexico,” said Juan Salgado, a senior police reform researcher at the World Justice Project, a Washington-based nonprofit. “Most cases handled by Mexico’s attorney general office are not resolved due to a lack of investigative skills and violations to due process.”
华盛顿非营利组织世界正义项目(World Justice Project)的高级警察改革研究员胡安·萨尔加多(Juan Salgado)说，“我认为他在墨西哥被起诉并被判有罪的可能性很小。”“由于缺乏调查技巧和违反正当程序，墨西哥总检察长办公室处理的大多数案件都没有得到解决。”
For Mexico’s president, going after Mr. Cienfuegos would confirm that corruption has penetrated the army’s highest circles and cast doubt on his close working relationship with the armed forces, said Mr. Salgado. But failure to prosecute could dent Mr. Lopez Obrador’s image as an anti-corruption crusader. “He is between a rock and a hard place,” he said.
Since the 1990s, most high-profile drug traffickers seized by Mexico have been handed over to the U.S. for prosecution.
One notable exception was drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who was tried and convicted in Mexico only to escape—twice—from maximum security jails, deeply embarrassing the Mexican government. He was recaptured in 2016 and extradited to the U.S. the following year. Following a spectacular trial, he was sentenced to life in prison and is currently held in a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo.
Another embarrassing setback for the Mexican judicial system was the case of drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero, convicted of taking part in the 1985 torture-murder of U.S. DEA agent Enrique Camarena and sentenced to 40 years in prison. In 2013, a state judge freed Mr. Caro Quintero, arguing he hadn’t been tried properly. The federal government tried to reimprison the drug lord, but he remains at large. The U.S. government has offered a $20 million reward for his capture, the highest reward on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Ten Most Wanted list.
墨西哥司法系统的另一个尴尬挫折是毒枭拉斐尔·卡罗·昆特罗(Rafael Caro Quintero)的案件，他被判参与1985年对美国缉毒局特工恩里克·卡马雷纳(Enrique Camarena)的酷刑谋杀，并被判处40年监禁。2013年，一名州法官释放了卡罗·昆特罗(Caro Quintero)，理由是他没有受到适当的审判。联邦政府试图重新监禁毒枭，但他仍然逍遥法外。美国政府悬赏2000万美元捉拿他，这是美国联邦调查局(FBI)公布的十大通缉犯名单中最高的悬赏。
Mexico also struggles to protect judges and prosecutors from revenge by drug traffickers. In June, a Mexican federal judge involved in the extradition of the son of a drug cartel leader to the U.S. was gunned down with his wife in front of their children in the violence-riven state of Colima, on Mexico’s Pacific coast.