NEW YORK -- U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday formally dropped a drug trafficking and money laundering case against a former Mexican defense secretary, a decision that came after Mexico threatened to cut off cooperation with U.S. authorities unless the general was sent home.
A judge in New York City approved the dismissal of charges, capping a quick turnaround in the case of former Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who was arrested just weeks ago in Los Angeles but will be returned to Mexico under an unusual diplomatic deal between the two countries.
The U.S. had touted the arrest as a major breakthrough when Cienfuegos was taken into custody Oct. 15. But the arrest drew a loud protest from top officials in Mexico and threatened to damage the delicate relationship that enables investigators in both countries to pursue drug kingpins together.
"The United States determined that the broader interest in maintaining that relationship in a cooperative way outweighed the department's interest and the public's interest in pursuing this particular case," Seth DuCharme, the acting U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, told the judge at a hearing.
He said the decision to drop the charges was made by Attorney General William Barr.
Cienfuegos was secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 2019. He was accused of conspiring with the H-2 cartel in Mexico to smuggle thousands of pounds of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while he was defense secretary from 2012 to 2018.
Prosecutors said intercepted messages showed that Cienfuegos accepted bribes in exchange for ensuring the military did not take action against the cartel and that operations were initiated against its rivals. He was also accused of introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.
Mexican officials complained that the U.S. failed to share evidence against Cienfuegos and that his arrest came as a surprise. It also caused alarm within Mexico's military, which has played a crucial role in operations against drug cartels.
Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Wednesday that he told Barr the U.S. had to choose between trying Cienfuegos and having continued cooperation.
"It is in your hands. You can't have both," Ebrard said he told Barr. "You cannot have close cooperation with all of Mexico's institutions and at the same time do this."
While Ebrard said he did not threaten any "specific action," such as limiting U.S. agents in Mexico, he said of Barr: "I imagine it worried him." He also said he called in U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau to express Mexico's displeasure.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Mexico's attorney general's office would decide whether Cienfuegos is placed in custody once he is returned. But given that there are no charges yet in Mexico, he is likely to be set free. "This does not signify impunity; it means that an investigation will be started," Lopez Obrador said.
"Gen. Cienfuegos returns to Mexico as a free man," Ebrard said.
Cienfuegos, a general who led Mexico's army department for six years under then-President Enrique Pena Nieto, was the highest-ranking former Mexican Cabinet official arrested since top security official Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in 2019.
Under an agreement signed by prosecutors and the general, Cienfuegos would depart the U.S. for Mexico "expeditiously in the custody of the U.S. marshals," Judge Carol Bagley Amon said. He would not be able to contest his removal or claim asylum in the U.S.
Outside the Brooklyn courthouse, defense attorney Edward Sapone said he expected Cienfuegos to be returned to Mexico on Wednesday. He noted that Cienfuegos had pleaded innocent and had planned to prove his innocence.
Barr said in a statement Tuesday that the Justice Department would drop its case so Cienfuegos could be investigated under Mexican law.
"I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the government's position," Amon said in granting the request to drop the case.
In a joint statement with Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero, Barr said that the U.S. Justice Department had made the decision to drop the case in recognition "of the strong law enforcement partnership between Mexico and the United States, and in the interests of demonstrating our united front against all forms of criminality."
The Justice Department said it has provided Mexico with evidence collected in the case.