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Drug Charges Dropped For Former Mexican Defense Secretary

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Mexico got a gift from the Trump administration this week - the return of its former secretary of defense. The retired general had been in U.S. custody facing drug trafficking and conspiracy charges. But the U.S. dropped all charges, and the former general was set free and returned to Mexico. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the move shocked many on both sides of the border and disrupted U.S.-Mexico anti-drug trafficking cooperation.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Ever since Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda's shocking arrest last month in Los Angeles, Mexico has been mad, fuming mad. Not only was this the highest-ranking Mexican official ever apprehended by the U.S., Mexican officials were never warned the former defense secretary was being investigated. Caught flat-footed, Mexico's foreign minister threatened to cut off security cooperation with the U.S., and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador accused the U.S. of violating Mexico's sovereignty. But once the U.S. dropped the charges this week, Lopez Obrador backtracked on the threats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: We never threatened to expel agents from Mexico, said the president on Thursday, once retired General Cienfuegos was back in Mexico. We just want to be informed and that cooperation agreements are respected, he said. Cienfuegos was flown back to Mexico, then set free. President Lopez Obrador says an investigation is open, and Mexico has all the U.S.'s evidence. And according to U.S. prosecutors, that evidence was solid, reportedly including thousands of intercepted messages between Cienfuegos and cartel leaders coordinating tons of narcotic shipments.

Carl Pike, a retired DEA agent who covered Mexico, says the U.S. wouldn't have prosecuted Cienfuegos if it did not have the evidence against him.

CARL PIKE: You just don't take a swing at a person like this. You have to make sure that when you show up in court, you're ready to go to war. And you want to make sure you got every base covered.

KAHN: U.S. Attorney General William Barr personally requested the charges be dropped. And in a letter requesting the dismissal, prosecutors cited, quote, "sensitive and important foreign policy considerations." Former DEA agent Pike says everyone who spent years building the case against the former defense secretary must be devastated.

PIKE: To have it just dismissed, had to be crushing.

KAHN: In Mexico, victims of crime are crushed, too. Jose Gutierrez Cruz heads an anti-violence civic group.

JOSE GUTIERREZ CRUZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The violence here doesn't stop, and the institutions don't ever hold anyone accountable, he says. Mexico has seen record numbers of homicides in recent years. Gutierrez says he doesn't believe the general will ever face justice in Mexico. While it's unclear whether Cienfuegos will be prosecuted, former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, says it is clear that security collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico has taken a big hit.

ARTURO SARUKHAN: This type of collaboration, this type of information sharing, this type of trust, the confidence-building that had evolved over the past 20 years, is at risk of crumbling.

KAHN: Because of how this case was handled, he says, and especially because of how it was, quote, "resolved." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY OROZA SONG, "THIS LOVE PART 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.