A shock US decision to drop charges against a former Mexican defence minister accused of drug trafficking and money laundering has sparked celebration, consternation and bewilderment.
Gen Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested at Los Angeles airport last month and accused of being at the heart of a multimillion dollar conspiracy to smuggle huge shipments of drugs into the US.
Prosecutors alleged that during his six-year stint at the head of Mexico’s military, the 72-year-old had taken bribes to help a shadowy cartel shift “thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine” north over the border. He has denied the charges.
Cienfuegos was the most senior Mexican official to have been arrested for such crimes and the case shook the political and military establishment in Latin America’s second biggest economy.
However, on Tuesday, in a startling twist, the US justice department announced it would seek to have the charges against Cienfuegos dismissed.
Prosecutors told the judge “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government’s interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant”.
A judge in New York approved the petition on Wednesday morning, despite what she called “very serious charges against a very significant figure”, meaning the general can now return to Mexico.
Cienfuego’s lawyers were overjoyed, telling Vice News it was a victory for “a man who has done so much good for his government and his community”.
Mexico’s foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, also welcomed what he called a “gesture of respect” towards Mexico and its armed forces, not a “path towards impunity” for an alleged criminal.
Ebrard denied the decision was linked to the US election, the result of which Mexico’s nationalist leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has yet to recognise.
The decision not to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory has led some to interpret the US decision to ditch its case against Cienfuegos as a reward from Donald Trump to his Mexican counterpart.
Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former chief of international operations, told AP the “absolutely discouraging and disappointing” decision was “a huge gift” from Trump.
Fernando Belaunzarán, a senior official from the Mexican president’s former party, told the Wall Street Journal: “There is no doubt that this is Trump’s last favour to López Obrador, it’s the culmination of their beautiful friendship.”
Those claims left analysts wondering why Mexico’s government was so keen to repatriate Cienfuegos, who underworld contacts allegedly called “El Padrino” or “the Godfather”.
“We don’t know,” the security expert Alejandro Hope w in the newspaper El Universal on Wednesday, “but it’s quite possible pressure from the armed forces played a decisive role.”
Mexico’s military top brass – a crucial source of support for López Obrador’s two-year-old administration – was thought to have been apoplectic at Cienfuegos’s arrest on foreign soil, potentially placing the president under intense pressure to act.
Chris Dalby, the managing editor of InSight Crime, said that for López Obrador the return home of Cienfuegos represented a political victory of sorts.
“Among his supporters there was an outcry that Cienfuegos had been arrested without the knowledge of the Mexican government. So certainly bringing Cienfuegos back will play well to his base.”
But the US U-turn also raised uncomfortable questions about impunity and corruption and fuelled fears that a man who justice officials felt they had a strong case against would never be brought to justice.
“[Amlo’s] prosecutors are going to have to weigh up what the evidence against Cienfuegos is and whether it is strong enough to warrant a very public trial, against the loyalty of the army and how much he wants to keep the army onside,” Dalby said.
Like many observers, he was doubtful the general would ever face trial in a civilian court. He said: “Cienfuegos has a lot of friends in high places.”