The Curious Case of Mexican General Cienfuegos

Mexican Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos receives the Legion of merit in West Point, N.Y., Nov. 16, 2018.

Photo: MSgt John Gordinier

At a West Point ceremony in November 2018, the U.S. Defense Department conferred the Legion of Merit on Mexico’s then-secretary of national defense, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos. Less than two years later, on Oct. 15, the retired Mexican four-star was arrested in Los Angeles on drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges.

A grand jury in the Eastern District of New York had handed up an indictment of Gen. Cienfuegos on Aug. 14, 2019, for crimes allegedly committed between December 2015 and February 2017. The indictment remained sealed until his arrest.

On Oct. 16, requesting a “permanent order of detention,” Acting U.S. Attorney Seth D. DuCharme alleged before the New York court that “while holding public office in Mexico, the defendant used his official position to assist the H-2 Cartel, a notorious Mexican drug cartel, in exchange for bribes.”

U.S. prosecutors insist they had what they needed to convict Gen. Cienfuegos, who was an active member of the Mexican military during the six years (2012-18) he held the cabinet-level post in the government of President

Enrique Peña Nieto.
But on Nov. 17, Attorney General

William Barr
dropped the case. The general was released and on Nov. 18 returned to Mexico, where the government has said it will investigate the charges. The odds of that happening are pretty long.

Chalk up one more loss for the futile, half-century-old U.S. war on drugs. In this case, the circular logic out of Washington is that keeping Mexico as a U.S. partner in fighting transnational crime trumps actual crime fighting. The good news for the drug-war bureaucracy is that its jobs program is secure.

Gen. Cienfuegos is innocent until proven guilty, and the Drug Enforcement Administration’s case against him, using intercepted BlackBerry Messenger communications that he supposedly sent to the capos, has provoked skepticism. Some are asking why a high-ranking government official, well-versed in intelligence, would recklessly risk a prestigious career.

On the other hand, institutional corruption is a problem in Mexico, while the American legal system guarantees the general due process. To remove the case to Mexico under pressure from Mexican President

Andrés Manuel López Obrador
(a k a AMLO) reeks of cynicism on both sides of the border.

It is unclear if the DEA informed its counterparts—the Defense Department’s Northern Command, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Council and the director of national intelligence, to name a few—of the evidence against Gen. Cienfuegos and built consensus for his arrest.

The DEA may have sensed the risk of being overruled and decided it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. As one source close to diplomatic circles of both countries told me, “It’s hard to understand how the DEA would have gotten the green light to arrest him, and then the Justice Department would send him back to Mexico.”

Word around Washington is that some of the alphabet-soup bureaucracy was unhappy at being left out of the loop. But that was nothing compared with the outrage from Mexico’s military. While AMLO was initially blasé about a DEA bust of a former top official, he did not remain so when the army made its fury clear.

Mexico’s rules for the DEA inside the country require agents to share intelligence regularly with Mexican authorities. The Mexican military, it is said, felt humiliated and betrayed by what it saw as a violation of the spirit of engagement and cooperation between the two countries. At this AMLO sprang into action, sending a message, via his foreign minister, to the gringos that south of the border, trust had been broken. With extradition and Mexico’s willingness to allow DEA agents to remain in the country at risk, the general was set free.

The Pentagon may have played a role too. After two decades working to convince the Mexican armed forces to modernize the relationship between the two sides, there has been substantial progress. Joint field training exercises at U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, for example, demonstrate a shared sense of the importance of North American perimeter security. Was prosecuting the general worth losing all that?

AMLO has put the army at the center of many of his pet projects, from developing a new international airport to taking over management of the country’s seaports. Yet while it is also charged with combating the transnational crime ravaging Mexico, it has achieved very little. It would be nice to know why.

The Cienfuegos release was meant to salvage bilateral cooperation. But what sort of cooperation is it if Mexico’s priority is to bury this matter rather than get to the bottom of whether the general is guilty or was set up? The drug-war game of cops and robbers will return to the script but the case against Gen. Cienfuegos suggests a more serious problem is brewing.

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.