WASHINGTON — The Justice Department plans to drop drug trafficking and corruption charges against a former Mexican defense minister to allow Mexican officials to investigate him, Attorney General William P. Barr announced Tuesday.
The official, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, had been Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018. He was arrested by Drug Enforcement Administration agents last month in Los Angeles, making him the first high-ranking Mexican military official to be arrested in the United States on drug-related corruption charges.
But after General Cienfuegos’ arrest, the federal authorities in Mexico opened an investigation into him and the United States would now defer to the Mexican government on the matter, Mr. Barr said in a joint statement with the attorney general of Mexico, Alejandro Gertz Manero. The statement stopped short 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,” Mr. Barr and Mr. Gertz Manero said in the statement.
The decision was an abrupt turnaround for American law enforcement officials, who had accused General Cienfuegos of helping transport narcotics and tipping a drug cartel off to American investigations into their operations.
The Mexican government was blindsided by the arrest, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador himself expressed some surprise at the detention of a military leader who had long commanded respect inside Mexico. Mexican officials have said privately that they were angry at a lack of communication by Justice Department officials on a case that had clearly taken time to build, given how closely the two countries collaborate in fighting organized crime.
The Justice Department charges against him underscored the corruption that has touched the highest levels of the government in Mexico. General Cienfuegos served as defense minister to President Enrique Peña Nieto, who left office two years ago. And his arrest came 10 months after another top official — who once led the Mexican equivalent of the F.B.I. — was indicted in New York on charges of taking bribes while in office to protect the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel.
Mr. Barr said that as part of an agreement with the Mexican authorities, the Justice Department had provided the evidence it had collected against General Cienfuegos to investigators there.
General Cienfuegos was arraigned in federal court in Brooklyn earlier this month, pleading not guilty to money laundering and trafficking charges.
Natalie Kitroeff contributed reporting from Mexico City.
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