NEW YORK (Reuters) – A federal judge was expected on Wednesday to grant a U.S. government request to drop drug corruption charges against former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, to allow Mexican officials to investigate him.
U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon in Brooklyn, New York is considering the request after Tuesday’s abrupt announcement by U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero that the U.S. case would end.
Cienfuegos, 72, had served as Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018 under former President Enrique Pena Nieto.
He was arrested last month in Los Angeles International Airport, becoming the first top Mexican military official taken into U.S. custody for drug-related corruption at home, and pleaded not guilty to drug and money laundering conspiracy charges.
But U.S. prosecutors said “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations” now outweighed the U.S. government’s interest in continuing to prosecute Cienfuegos, and therefore their case against him should be dismissed.
The prosecutors also said Cienfuegos agreed to return to Mexico if the U.S. charges were dropped.
He has not been charged in Mexico and faces no arrest warrant there. The Mexican government said its case was based entirely on evidence provided by the United States.
Amon ordered Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme to appear at Wednesday’s hearing, a rare move.
U.S. prosecutors accused Cienfuegos of abusing the power of his office to protect a faction of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, while ordering operations against rival gangs.
While in office, Cienfuegos had worked closely with U.S. counterparts on cross-border criminal matters and was a leading Mexican figure fighting that country’s drug war.
His arrest, which Mexico had not been warned about, strained security ties between the two countries and shocked Mexico’s security establishment, where Cienfuegos has maintained close ties.
Following the arrest, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador threatened to review agreements establishing how U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents operated in the country.
Cienfuegos’ case set off a flurry of frantic calls between Barr, DEA Acting Administrator Timothy Shea, and Mexican officials to calm tensions.
In a statement on Tuesday, Barr and Gertz said the U.S. Department of Justice provided evidence it has gathered to Mexican authorities, and would support their probe.
Cienfuegos’ arrest came 10 months after U.S. prosecutors charged Mexico’s former top public security chief, Genaro Garcia Luna, with taking bribes to protect the Sinaloa drug cartel once run by drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Garcia Luna has pleaded not guilty.
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