Mexico accused the US of making up drug trafficking charges against its former defence minister, but moved to allay fears that security co-operation would be ruptured by toning down a law to curtail the operations of US anti-narcotics agents in Mexico.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told a news conference that the Mexican attorney-general’s office would not proceed with a case that “was fabricated against Gen [Salvador] Cienfuegos” by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, adding it had found no evidence of the claims against him.
“We’re not a pushover . . . for foreign governments,” he added, calling the US case “an investigation without foundation, without proof”.
The decorated four-star general had been arrested at the behest of the DEA in Los Angeles in October, causing a storm in Mexico because the government of Mr López Obrador was not tipped off in advance. US prosecutors had argued that their case, which included thousands of intercepted BlackBerry messages purportedly between the general and the boss of a little known drug cartel, was solid.
Few in Mexico had expected any domestic charges to be brought, given the power of the military and its closeness to the president.
Under pressure from furious military chiefs, many of whose senior brass were appointed by Gen Cienfuegos, Mr López Obrador mounted an unprecedented diplomatic push that secured his release in November and return home to be investigated there.
However, the attorney-general’s office said in a statement that its analysis of the evidence sent by the US “concluded that Gen Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda never had any meeting with members of the criminal organisation investigated by the US authorities, nor did he communicate with them at all or do anything to protect or aid those individuals”.
It said it found no proof that Gen Cienfuegos used electronic communications or received illicit cash.
Mr López Obrador said all the evidence sent by the US to Mexico would be made public on Friday.
In the wake of the general’s return, Mexico rushed through a security law requiring DEA agents to share information with Mexican authorities that could strip them of diplomatic immunity. Experts slammed the law, saying it would hobble essential bilateral security co-operation.
But regulations published in the official gazette toned down the law, requiring foreign agents to provide written details of when, with whom they met, and why, but not the content of the meetings — something analysts said was a nod to co-operation with the incoming administration of US president-elect Joe Biden.
“Mexico — as expected — dropped all charges against former Defence Secretary Cienfuegos — bad,” tweeted Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on security at the Brookings Institution. “Government of Mexico published guidelines softening bad law gutting bilateral security co-operation — better.”
But one former senior military official said that was still enough to slow co-operation. “We can only presume relations between the US and Mexican military are deeply severed and will stay that way for some time . . . the bad guys should be very happy!”