A U.S. judge on Wednesday granted the Department of Justice's request to drop the drug trafficking and money laundering case against former Mexican Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos and return him to Mexico.

The action came after Mexico acknowledged making veiled threats to cut off cooperation unless the general was sent home.

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Acting U.S. Attorney Seth DuCharme told a judge at a hearing in New York that the decision to drop the charges was made by Attorney General William Barr and was based on the balancing of interests between pursuing prosecution and of deference to the U.S.‘s relationship with Mexico.

“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," DuCharme said.

In this Oct. 16, 2020, court artist sketch, former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda's appears in federal court in Los Angeles. (Bill Robles via AP, File)

In this Oct. 16, 2020, court artist sketch, former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda’s appears in federal court in Los Angeles. (Bill Robles via AP, File)

Mexican officials have complained that U.S. authorities failed to share evidence against Cienfuegos and that his arrest last month came as a surprise. It also caused alarm within the military that has played a crucial role in operations against drug cartels.

Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Wednesday that he had told Barr that the U.S. had to choose between trying Cienfuegos and having continued cooperation.

“It is in your hands. You can’t have both,” Ebrard recalled telling 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,” like 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.

In this Sept. 16, 2016 file photo, Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, left, and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, salute during the annual Independence Day military parade in Mexico City's main square. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

In this Sept. 16, 2016 file photo, Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, left, and Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto, salute during the annual Independence Day military parade in Mexico City’s main square. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office would decide whether Cienfuegos was 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.”

Ebrard said, “Gen. Cienfuegos returns to Mexico as a free man."

And analysts said it is unlikely he will face charges in Mexico.

“That is not going to happen, we all know it,” wrote columnist Carlos Loret de Mola in the newspaper El Universal. “He will return to Mexico and be set free, because that is the promise that President (Andrés Manuel) López Obrador made to the army.”

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.

Amon said she understood “this application is being made at the highest level of the Justice Department, that this was a decision made by the attorney general of the United States.”

Cienfuegos' lawyers didn't contest the decision. They have previously said he is innocent.

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Barr said in a statement Tuesday that the Justice Department would drop its case so Cienfuegos, who was arrested in Los Angeles earlier this spring, 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.

Cienfuegos, a general who led Mexico’s army department for six years under then-President Enrique Peña Nieto, was the highest-ranking former Mexican Cabinet official arrested since top security official Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in 2019.

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 kilos 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 Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said at a news conference Tuesday that Mexico had expressed its displeasure with not being advised of the investigation against Cienfuegos and requested, then received, the evidence against him.

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Barr said in a joint statement with Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero that the U.S. Justice Department had made the decision to drop the U.S. 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.

López Obrador has entrusted Mexico’s army and navy with a broader range of tasks than most other previous Mexican presidents, and he faced pressure to win Cienfuegos’ return.

The old ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, to which Peña Nieto belongs, had previously called on Mexico’s government to pay Cienfuegos’ legal fees, and on Tuesday it celebrated the decision to drop the charges.

Party leader Alejandro Moreno wrote in his Twitter account that the party “resolutely supports Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos … We should all congratulate ourselves and always support our armed forces.”

On Tuesday, Ebrard denied the decision was related to the U.S. elections or López Obrador’s decision not to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden. Ebrard said he spoke with Barr on Oct. 26, a week before the U.S. elections.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with it. They are two different processes,” Ebrard said.

Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former chief of international operations, said the decision “is nothing more than a gift, a huge gift” from President Donald Trump to López Obrador.

“No matter how you slice the pie, this is nothing more than a last-ditch favor to López Obrador,” Vigil said, noting that “López Obrador has been very subservient to Donald Trump on immigration issues and has hesitated in congratulating Joe Biden.”

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“The chances of Cienfuegos being convicted in Mexico are slim to none,” Vigil said, citing the former defense secretary’s political connections in Mexico and the country’s idolization of the military.

“This sends a very negative message to U.S. law enforcement agencies, that Donald Trump is willing to politically manipulate judicial proceedings,” he said.

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