Former Mexican defense minister arrested in U.S.

Clay Curtis
October 17, 2020

Cienfuegos, who was defense chief from 2012 until 2018, was reportedly on a trip with his family when he was detained at Los Angeles airport.

Reuters was not immediately able to contact a lawyer the US Attorney's office in Brooklyn said was representing the defendant.

According to documents released by United States federal prosecutors in NY on Friday, prosecutors accuse Cienfuegos of conspiring to produce and distribute heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and cannabis in the USA between December 2015 and February 2017.

"In exchange for bribe payments, he permitted the H-2 Cartel - a cartel that routinely engaged in wholesale violence, including torture and murder - to operate with impunity in Mexico", the indictment said.

Cienfuegos is 72 years old and has retired from active duty.

The morning after the stunning arrest, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador - who has based his political career on denouncing corruption - slammed the previous administration and pledged to suspend anyone inside his government found to be implicated in the charges.

The arrest of Cienfuegos - nicknamed El Padrino, or The Godfather, in an August 2019 indictment that was sealed until he was in USA custody - marked the first time a former Mexican defense minister has been indicted and detained.

"Of course, all this must be proven", he said.

As defense minister General Salvador Cienfuegos was a powerful figure in Mexico's drug war in which the army battled cartels across the country. He is the highest-ranking former Cabinet official arrested since the top Mexican security official Genaro Garcia Luna was taken into custody in Texas in 2019.

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Cienfuegos - also known as "El Padrino", or "The Godfather", according to the indictment - is accused of alerting cartel leaders to a USA law enforcement investigation into its operations and the use of co-operating witnesses and informants, which resulted in the murder of a member of the cartel that leaders incorrectly believed was assisting US law enforcement authorities.

There had been no open investigation into Cienfuegos in Mexico and his arrest was linked to the case against Garcia Luna, said Lopez Obrador.

Garcia Luna is on trial in NY on suspicion of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from Guzman's Sinaloa cartel, which he was tasked with combating.

Under Cienfuegos the army was accused of extrajudicial killings, including the 2014 Tlatlaya massacre, where 22 drug gang members were executed.

Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard did not say on what charges Cienfuegos was detained.

"We are in front of an unprecedented situation", he said.

The armed forces have taken an increasingly prominent role in fighting crime in Mexico, and generally are perceived as less prone to corruption than civilian police forces.

DEA spokeswoman in Los Angeles, Nicole Nishida, said she had no further details about the nature of the warrant, the circumstances of the arrest, whether he was coming or going at the Los Angeles airport, or anything about family or others who may have been traveling with him.

"It was totally unexpected. I will keep you posted", said Ebrard.

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