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Former defense minister Cienfuegos and Peña Nieto. Former defense minister Cienfuegos and Peña Nieto.

Ex-army chief and defense minister faces four drug trafficking charges

Salvador Cienfuegos protected the Nayarit-based H-2 Cartel, according to one count

Mexico’s former defense minister, arrested Thursday at Los Angeles airport on a warrant from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, faces four drug-related charges and will appear in court on Friday afternoon.

Unsealed Friday, a 2019 indictment of the United States District Court of the Eastern District of New York accuses General Salvador Cienfuegos, army chief during the 2012-2018 government of former president Enrique Peña Nieto, of conspiring to manufacture and distribute drugs including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana and conspiring to launder narcotics proceeds.

One count reads that between late 2015 and early 2017 Cienfuegos, “also known as ‘El Padrino'” (the Godfather) and others conspired to manufacture and distribute one or more controlled substances, intending that they would be unlawfully imported into the United States.

In another court filing, U.S. prosecutors said that in exchange for bribe payments the former army chief permitted the Nayarit-based H-2 Cartel – “a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder – to operate with impunity in Mexico.”

Counts two and three also refer to drug conspiracy charges while count four refers to money laundering, accusing Cienfuegos, “together with others,” of conspiring to conduct financial transactions involving the proceeds of drug trafficking.

Cienfuegos' arrest described as 'heavy blow' to the image of the army.
Cienfuegos’ arrest described as ‘heavy blow’ to the image of the army.

The indictment also says the United States government will seek forfeiture of any property Cienfuegos obtained directly or indirectly as a result of his alleged offenses.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Twitter Friday morning that he had been informed that Cienfuegos will appear in court at 4:30 p.m. CT on Friday. He said the former defense minister’s lawyer was on his way to the United States and that Cienfuegos was expected to be transferred to New York after his hearing.

César Gutiérrez Priego, a lawyer who specializes in military matters, said the arrest of Cienfuegos, the first top Mexican military official to be arrested in the United States, is a “very heavy blow” to the image of the army and the morale of military personnel.

“This is an investigation that should have been carried out years ago,” he added.

Security specialist Ricardo Márquez Blas said that the arrest will damage the reputation of the army, which he described as one of the country’s most prestigious and respected institutions.

León Krauze, a columnist for the newspaper El Universal, said the arrest will have “profound implications” for the Mexican army, the former and current governments and the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States.

A senator for the ruling Morena party questioned why Cienfuegos and former security minister Genaro García Luna have been arrested but the presidents they served under – Peña Nieto and Felipe Calderón, respectively – have not.

“Will they only be arrested if they go to the United States?” Felix Salgado Macedonio asked in a Twitter post.

García Luna was arrested in the U.S. last December on charges that he colluded with and took bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel. He is currently in prison awaiting trial.

President López Obrador, who has used the detention of the former security minister as evidence for his frequent claims that Calderón’s government and other past administrations were corrupt, pounced on the news of Cienfuego’s arrest, saying that it created an “unprecedented situation.”

“This is an unequivocal example of the rotting of the system, of how public administration – the function of the government – was degraded in the country during the neoliberal period,” he said.

Despite that claim, López Obrador said that Cienfuegos must be afforded the presumption of innocence. He said that there are no pending charges against the former defense minister in Mexico.

Arrest is example of 'the rot that existed during the neoliberal period,' said President López Obrador.
News of Cienfuegos’ arrest shows ‘the rot during the neoliberal period,’ said President López Obrador.

The president also said there will be a “cleansing” of the army to remove any officials who might have colluded with Cienfuegos.

As in the case of García Luna, all those who turn out to be involved in this case, that are [currently] in the National Defense [Ministry] of the government, will be suspended and removed,” he said, adding that anyone suspected of wrongdoing will be referred to the relevant authorities.

“We’re not going to cover up for anyone.”

López Obrador also expressed confidence in the current army and navy chiefs although both security forces are accused of human rights abuses during his administration.

The president said that he is “absolutely convinced” that the military, to which he has entrusted public security tasks until the final year of his six-year term, has a fundamental role to play in the ongoing “development of our country.”

The army and the navy are “pillars of the Mexican state,” López Obrador said.

“They’re so strong that not even … the involvement of a former defense minister in drug trafficking … weakens them.”

Source: Milenio (sp), Reforma (sp), El Economista (sp), El Universal (sp) 

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