Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Friday accused the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of fabricating crimes in the case of a former defense minister whose arrest sparked diplomatic tensions.
The detention of Salvador Cienfuegos at a Los Angeles airport in October had surprised and irritated the Mexican government, which successfully pushed for him to be sent home to face possible prosecution.
Lopez Obrador said he supported Mexican prosecutors’ decision to take no action over “the accusation that was fabricated against General Cienfuegos by the US agency in charge of fighting drugs, the DEA.”
The self-styled anti-graft crusader said that while corruption was unacceptable, “there cannot be reprisals, revenge, and crimes cannot be invented. No one should be treated that way.”
Cienfuegos, a key figure in ex-president Enrique Pena Nieto’s 2012 to 2018 government, was accused by the US of conspiring to produce and distribute “thousands of kilograms” of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana.
The retired general, nicknamed “The Godfather,” had faced a possible life sentence in the US if convicted of the drug trafficking and money laundering charges, which he denied.
After diplomatic pressure, the US Department of Justice in November unexpectedly asked a New York judge to release the 72-year-old so that Mexico could hold its own probe and potentially try him.
The Mexican attorney general’s office on Thursday exonerated Cienfuegos, concluding that he “never had any meeting with the members of the criminal organization investigated by the US authorities.
“He did not have any communication with them, nor did he carry out acts intended to protect or help those individuals,” it added.
Prosecutors said there was also no evidence that the retired general “had issued any order to favor” criminals or “obtained illegal income.“
The arrest had put Lopez Obrador, who has had cordial relations with outgoing US President Donald Trump, in an uncomfortable position because he has close links to the military and has given it increased responsibilities.
Mexican lawmakers last month approved security law reforms pushed by Lopez Obrador stripping foreign agents including the DEA of diplomatic immunity, to the dismay of US authorities.
More than 300,000 people have been murdered since Mexico deployed the military to fight the drug cartels in 2006, with most of the killings blamed on organized crime.
“Holding the upper echelons of state power accountable is a necessary condition for breaking Mexico’s perpetual lethal conflict,” said Falko Ernst, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank
The exoneration of Cienfuegos “cements a leap away from this,” he tweeted.