President López Obrador declared Monday that his government won’t remain silent in light of an “irresponsible” United States’ investigation into former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos.
The federal Attorney General’s Office (FGR) exonerated ex-president Enrique Peña Nieto’s army chief last week, concluding that Cienfuegos had not colluded with the H-2 Cartel to smuggle drugs into the United States as the U.S. alleged.
López Obrador claimed Friday that the U.S. – which arrested Cienfuegos last October before dropping the charges and allowing him to return to Mexico in November – fabricated evidence against the ex-defense minister.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry subsequently released the file it received from the United States, while the FGR published a heavily redacted version of its own rapidly completed investigation into the retired general.
Speaking at his regular news conference on Monday, López Obrador asserted that the United States understands Mexico’s decision to exonerate Cienfuegos, although the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said that it stood by its investigation and that it could reopen the case against the erstwhile army chief.
“They know that the credibility of a government cannot be called into question. They wouldn’t accept that and we don’t either,” the president said, even though he accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of fabricating evidence and lacking professionalism.
“It’s not possible for an investigation to be carried out with so much irresponsibility, without support, and for us to remain silent,” López Obrador said. “Imagine what would happen if the government of Mexico that I lead kept quiet. We would lose authority, moral authority most importantly. We would end up as abettors in the eyes of Mexicans and the world.”
The president thanked the United States government for sending its file on Cienfuegos to Mexico without placing any conditions on his government. The DOJ was critical of the decision to make it public, asserting that Mexico had violated a bilateral treaty in doing so, but López Obrador claimed that the release of the file would not have a negative impact on the relationship with the United States.
He said Mexico had done the right thing in making the file public, asserting that doing so shed light on the fabrication of the evidence against Cienfuegos.
“This doesn’t affect [bilateral] relations. The relations are good with the current government and with that which will take office this week,” López Obrador said.
He also said that Mexico is willing to continue security cooperation with the United States, stating that his government didn’t want any ruptures in the relationship. (For its part, the DOJ said that the release of the U.S. file “calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico’s own criminal investigations.”)
The FGR’s exoneration of Cienfuegos was regarded as unsurprising by many analysts both here and in the United States, some of whom contended that it showed the immense power of the Mexican armed forces, upon which López Obrador is relying for the construction of infrastructure projects, distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine and public security in addition to traditional military roles.
However, there was some surprise over the speed with which the FGR cleared the former defense minister of wrongdoing – he returned to Mexico on November 18 and was exonerated less than two months later.
The Mexican authorities apparently relied heavily on a declaration Cienfuegos made on January 9. The heavily redacted report released by the FGR on Sunday revealed that the former army chief expressed incredulity that the DEA attributed credibility to incriminating cell phone messages between cartel members that it intercepted.
Some of Cienfuegos’ declaration of innocence is blacked out but in one part he denied ever having prohibited security operations against the Nayarit-based H-2 Cartel. He said that laws made it clear that it was not his role as defense minister to plan, conduct or participate in anti-narcotics operations.
Cienfuegos said that it is patently “false” to say that he ordered operations not to be carried out in Nayarit or any other state in the country. He asserted that a 2016 message the DEA attributed to him in which he supposedly tells a cartel figure not to worry about 300 troops being sent to Nayarit because they are only going to set up a military expo is also false. The expo in question was not held in Nayarit in 2016, Cienfuegos told the FGR.
He also addressed a physical description of him provided by a cartel member in one text message. Cienfuegos told the FGR that he is tall and and has brown skin, not short and fair-skinned as Daniel Silva Gárate, a now-deceased H-2 cartel member known as “El H9,” claimed in a message sent to his his boss and uncle, the also deceased H-2 Cartel leader Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, known as “El H2.”
“It’s evident that this criminal … never held any meeting with me” as he claimed, Cienfuegos said.
The former defense minister said that El H9 was attempting to deceive his boss and uncle in order to obtain money he supposedly needed to bribe him.
Cienfuegos asserted that “of course” he never received any money from the criminal organization. Another claim contained in intercepted messages – that he received 10 million pesos [US $507,000 at today’s exchange rate] in exchange for agreeing to carry out a coup to overthrow then president Peña Nieto – “borders on stupidity,” he said.
“[Messages] make mention of an armed uprising and even a revolution. It’s frankly ridiculous and more ridiculous that specialists [of the DEA] gave credit [to them] … when my loyalty toward institutions and the institution of the presidency is well known,” Cienfuegos said.
“The weak and circumstantial evidence against me completely lack support and … is sufficiently and forcefully discredited with the information my defense team has provided,” he said.
“… I have never received even a single centavo from any kind of illicit activity, nobody has ever offered me bribes or gifts, I have no remuneration beyond what the nation gives me, I have no companies, I’m not a partner or investor in any business.”
The FGR report also includes a military document that said that no Blackberry cell phones, which the U.S. alleged Cienfuegos used to communicate with criminals, had been distributed to the former defense minister or anyone serving in the army.