When U.S. 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, calling it an egregious breach of trust between allies. Mexico City issued an unheard-of warning to Washington: If the U.S. did not rethink its pursuit of Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico would consider expelling U.S. drug agents, jeopardizing a decades-long partnership that has helped bring top drug lords to justice, the New York Times reports. On Wednesday, at the request of Attorney General William Barr, a federal judge in Brooklyn said she would dismiss charges against Cienfuegos, a former army general.
The DOJ reversal stunned officials in the State Department and in Congress, who said Cienfuegos’s release was an abrupt departure from the Trump administration’s aggressive pursuit of organized crime and drugs from Mexico. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo needed to explain what had gone wrong. In the past, U.S. authorities worked with Mexican counterparts in capturing major drug trafficking suspects, who are often arrested in Mexico by Mexican forces. In this case the Justice Department indicted Cienfuegos last year, did not alert Mexican officials, and waited until he visited the U.S. to take him into custody. The release of 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. Judge Carol Amon, in dismissing the indictment, said, “Although these are very serious charges against a very significant figure, and the old adage ‘a bird in the hand’ comes to mind, “still I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the government’s decision.”