Former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos pleaded not guilty on Thursday to drug trafficking and money laundering charges in the United States.
Cienfuegos, army chief during the 2012-2018 government led by former president Enrique Peña Nieto, was arrested at Los Angeles airport last month. He faces three charges of drug trafficking and one of money laundering.
The 72-year-old former official allegedly colluded with the H-2 Cartel, a faction of the Beltrán Leyva Organization.
Cienfuegos appeared at a Brooklyn federal court hearing via video link from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, where he was transferred this week. His not guilty plea was submitted by his lawyer, Edward Sapone.
Cienfuegos, the second high profile former security official to be arrested in the United States in the last year after ex-security minister Genaro García Luna was detained last December, is expected to face trial early next year.
García, who served in the 2006-2012 administration led by former president Felipe Calderón, is also being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center. He faces charges that he colluded with the Sinaloa Cartel.
A day before Cienfuegos’ latest hearing, it was announced that Sapone was taking over his case.
The lawyer said in a statement Thursday that he and his legal team “will ensure that General Cienfuegos’ constitutional rights are protected as we zealously defend him.”
The case against the former army chief is based on incriminating Blackberry smartphone messages intercepted by United States authorities.
U.S. prosecutors say that Cienfuegos used his position to protect the H-2 Cartel, accusing him of ordering operations against its rivals and helping it secure maritime transport to ship drugs to the United States. His next court appearance is scheduled for November 18.
Sapone has previously represented Mexican government officials. A biography on his website says that he defended an advisor to a president of Mexico and that his defense resulted in no charges being filed.
Sapone has also represented the Mexican consulate in New York for 19 years. He said that his work for Cienfuegos is unrelated to that relationship but that the consulate was aware of it and was “pleased.”
President López Obrador last week ruled out any possibility that the federal government would fund the former minister’s defense.
“When Mexicans are detained and on trial abroad, they are supported. There’s consular assistance but [government] resources aren’t used to defend any alleged perpetrator of crimes; that possibility is not being considered,” he said.
Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said last week that Mexico had expressed its “profound discontent” to the United States over not being informed about the plan to arrest Cienfuegos.
López Obrador has called on U.S. authorities to provide Mexico all its information about the Cienfuegos case. The general hasn’t faced any criminal charges at home.
The arrest of the former army chief is a major embarrassment for the armed forces and raises awkward questions for the president, who is relying on the military for public security, infrastructure construction and a range of other important tasks.
Despite Cienfuegos’ arrest, López Obrador says that he retains full confidence in the armed forces, asserting recently that he personally vetted the current army and navy chiefs and could vouch for their honesty.