Life Imitates Art – Story of the Week
This sordid tale of the US Justice Department suddenly dropping an indictment against Mexico’s former Defense Minister is shocking. Perhaps not. This is what the War on Drugs which began in 1969 in the Nixon Administration has been all about. Politics.
One only needs to watch the terrific Steven Soderbergh movie Traffic released in 2000 to get a spot on cinematic look at the failed War on Drugs.
Excerpted from New York Times 11.18.2020
Emotions reached a peak in recent days, as Mexico City issued an unheard-of warning to its counterparts in Washington: If the United States did not rethink its pursuit of Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico would consider expelling American federal drug agents from the country, jeopardizing a decades-long partnership that has helped bring several top drug lords to justice, according to three people in the United States who are familiar with the case.
In this case the Justice Department quietly indicted Mr. Cienfuegos last year, did not alert Mexican officials, and waited until he visited the United States to take him into custody. It is not clear what led the department to forgo Mexican cooperation, angering an important ally and leading to the embarrassing setback of dropping the case.
Mr. Cienfuegos, who had served as Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018, was charged in Brooklyn in October with laundering money and trafficking heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana from late 2015 through early 2017 on behalf of the H-2 drug cartel, an offshoot of a larger and older criminal mafia, the Beltrán-Leyva organization.
The charges were the result of a multiyear inquiry that investigators called Operation Padrino, or Godfather — a reference to what they claim was Mr. Cienfuegos’ nickname in the underworld. The investigation, which began in late 2013, was bolstered, court papers say, by a sprawling wiretap that covertly captured thousands of BlackBerry messages, some of which are said to implicate Mr. Cienfuegos in chatting and orchestrating meetings with cartel leaders.
Officials say that Mr. Cienfuegos helped the H-2 cartel, which has committed horrific acts of violence as part of its smuggling business, with its maritime shipments. In exchange for lucrative payouts, the officials say, Mr. Cienfuegos also directed military operations away from the cartel and toward its rivals.
Mexican officials made the threat after weeks of anger at the surprise arrest of a former defense minister. Their gambit appears to have worked — the charges were dropped.
That threat appeared to work. On Wednesday, at the request of Attorney General William P. Barr himself, a federal judge in Brooklyn said she would formally dismiss the charges against Mr. Cienfuegos, a former army general.
From the moment U.S. federal agents arrested a former Mexican defense minister last month on drug trafficking charges, the highest levels of the Mexican government were outraged at being kept in the dark about the case, seeing it as an egregious breach of trust between allies.
The Justice Department’s reversal stunned officials in the State Department and in Congress, who said Mr. Cienfuegos’s release would be an abrupt departure from the Trump administration’s aggressive pursuit of organized crime and drugs from Mexico. The dismissal was said to especially anger officials with the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, which oversees Mexico policy.
Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda addressing the troops
The release of Mr. Cienfuegos — who arrived back in Mexico on Wednesday, with no guarantee that he would ever face charges — illustrates how foreign policy can interfere with the day-to-day prosecution of the drug war. Prosecutors acknowledged the challenges in a letter to the Judge Carol B. Amon, of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, saying they had dropped the charges because of “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations.”