A United States judge has refused to grant bail to former army chief Salvador Cienfuegos on drug trafficking and money laundering charges, rejecting an argument that the ex-defense minister was not a flight risk because he is determined to clear his name.
At a hearing in Los Angeles on Tuesday, the attorney for Cienfuegos, who was arrested at L.A. airport last week, said that his client could offer bail of US $750,000, an amount he described as the former general’s life savings.
Duane Lyons, a partner at Quinn Emmanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, the largest litigation firm in the world, said that his client, who he called “a dedicated Mexican general who served his country honorably for a number of years,” has “every intention of clearing his name.”
If he were to be released on bail and flee, “his name and reputation would be ruined,” Lyons said. If he were to return to Mexico while out on bail, the United States’ extradition treaty with that country would help ensure that he was sent back to the U.S., he said.
The lawyer also argued that Cienfuegos, 72, was at risk of being infected with the coronavirus by being kept in jail, pointing out that he is vulnerable to a serious illness due to his age.
United States District Court Judge Alexander MacKinnon dismissed the argument that the former defense minister was not a flight risk, saying that Cienfuegos, who didn’t appear at the hearing, has a powerful incentive to flee because he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
The ex-defense minister, chief of the army during the entirety of former president Enrique Peña Nieto’s 2012-2018 term, could face a mandatory prison sentence of at least 10 years if convicted on conspiracy charges.
He is accused of helping the H-2 Cartel, an offshoot of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, to operate with impunity in Mexico and smuggle large quantities of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States. He is also accused of laundering the proceeds of his alleged illicit activities.
Mackinnon rejected the notion that Cienfuegos could be promptly returned to the United States if he fled to Mexico, siding with government prosecutors who argued that extradition could take years.
The district judge said that he would sign an order to transfer the former defense minister to New York – where the court that indicted him is located – on Friday, giving Cienfuegos time to meet with his Mexican attorney who is currently in Los Angeles.
Lyons said that Cienfuegos wouldn’t oppose the transfer.
The firm for which he works is also representing César Duarte, a former Chihuahua governor who was arrested on corruption charges in Miami, Florida, in July.
Quinn Emmanuel Trial Lawyers also took on the case of former security minister Genaro García Luna, who was arrested last December on charges of collusion with the Sinaloa Cartel.
But the ex-official, security chief in the government of former president Felipe Calderón, later changed his legal team, asserting that he couldn’t afford Quinn Emmanuel’s fees, which reportedly range from US $800 to $1,000 per hour.
President López Obrador, who has used the charges against Cienfuegos and García Luna to support his claim that Mexico’s recent past governments were corrupt, said Tuesday that he would be his administration’s sole spokesperson on the former army chief’s case.
He said that designating himself as the government’s spokesperson would avoid “manipulation of information” about the charges Cienfuegos faces. The president said Monday that his government would ask the United States to share all its information about the former defense ministers’ alleged ties to drug traffickers.
Speaking on Tuesday before MacKinnon denied Cienfuegos bail, López Obrador made it clear that he agreed with U.S. prosectors’ assessment that the former general was a flight risk, asserting that he has “very important connections in Mexico who could protect and hide him.”
The arrest of the ex-army chief raises awkward questions for the president because his government is relying heavily on the armed forces, not just for public security but also for the construction of key infrastructure projects.
It is also a sticky issue for López Obrador because he has repeatedly portrayed the army and navy as trustworthy, corruption-free institutions even though there was ample evidence to the contrary, even before Cienfuegos was taken into custody.