MEXICO CITY/WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US prosecutors will drop drug charges against ex-Mexican Defence Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and turn over the investigation to Mexico, saying "sensitive" foreign policy considerations outweighed the interest in pressing the case.
The surprise decision to dismiss the charges in the politically explosive case was announced in a joint statement on Tuesday (Nov 17) from the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Mexico's attorney-general's office.
"The United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government's interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant," prosecutors from the US Eastern District of New York said in a court document unsealed on Tuesday.
US authorities said the 72-year-old ex-general, accused of using his power to protect a faction of the Beltran-Leyva drugs cartel in Mexico while ordering operations against its rivals, had agreed to voluntarily return to Mexico if the US case against him was thrown out.
Cienfuegos, who served as head of the military and was former President Enrique Pena Nieto's top defence official from 2012 to 2018, pleaded not guilty earlier this month to the drug trafficking and money laundering conspiracy charges following his October arrest in the Los Angeles airport.
After a hearing on Wednesday in a Brooklyn federal court, where the judge is expected to sign off on the prosecutors' request, Cienfuegos will likely be transported back to Mexico in the custody of a US Marshal, the court documents show.
"Tomorrow justice will be done," said Mr Edward Sapone, Cienfuegos' US-based attorney said in a brief statement.
The arrest of Cienfuegos, who for years worked closely with US counterparts on cross-border criminal matters and was a leading figure in Mexico's drug war, put a severe strain on security ties between the two countries.
The Mexican government was not forewarned of the investigation or arrest, which angered Mexican sensitivities at the highest level. His arrest shocked Mexico's security establishment, given his close ties to a range of current senior officials.
In retaliation, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador publicly threatened to review cooperation agreements that establish how US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents operate in the country.
The threats set off a flurry of frantic calls between US Attorney-General William Barr, DEA Acting Administrator Timothy Shea, and Mexican officials seeking to calm the bilateral tensions over the case.
In remarks to reporters shortly after the announcement, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard described the dropping of the US case as unprecedented and a sign of respect for both Mexican sovereignty as well as the Mexican military.
Mr Ebrard said the decision meant that security cooperation between the two nations could proceed.
News of the abrupt reversal by US prosecutors prompted a wave of cynical reactions from security analysts, who mostly expressed pessimism that Mexican authorities would succeed in proving the crimes Cienfuegos had been accused of in the United States.
Mr Ebrard said the Department of Justice had provided Mexican authorities with evidence in the case and committed to support the investigation led by Mexican authorities.
US prosecutors could not immediately be reached for comment.