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Oct. 29, 2020

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Authorities: Mexico official helped smuggle drugs

Ex-defense secretary accused of helping cartel in exchange for bribes

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FILE - In this Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, file photo, Mexico's Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda gestures as U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens during a reception ceremony in Mexico City. Mexico's top diplomat says the country's former defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, has been arrested in Los Angeles. Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard wrote Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020 in his Twitter account that U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau had informed him of Cienfuegos' arrest.
FILE - In this Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, file photo, Mexico's Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda gestures as U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens during a reception ceremony in Mexico City. Mexico's top diplomat says the country's former defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, has been arrested in Los Angeles. Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard wrote Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020 in his Twitter account that U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau had informed him of Cienfuegos' arrest. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File) (bill robles/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

LOS ANGELES — Mexico’s former defense secretary helped a cartel smuggle thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States in exchange for bribes, according to court documents unsealed Friday.

Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, 72, acted on behalf of the H-2 cartel while defense secretary from 2012 to 2018 under former President Enrique Pena Nieto, authorities said.

Thousands of intercepted BlackBerry messages show the general ensured military operations were not conducted against the cartel, and that operations were initiated against rivals, according to prosecutors. Cienfuegos allegedly introduced cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.

Cienfuegos — also known as “El Padrino,” or “The Godfather,” according to the indictment — is accused of alerting cartel leaders to a U.S. law enforcement investigation into its operations and the use of cooperating witnesses and informants, which resulted in the murder of a member of the cartel that leaders incorrectly believed was assisting U.S. law enforcement authorities.

Intercepted communications between Cienfuegos and a cartel leader discussed the general’s historical assistance to another drug trafficking organization, as well as communications in which the defendant is identified by name, title and photograph as the Mexican government official assisting the H-2 cartel, authorities said.

Mexico authorities don’t identify any drug cartel as H-2, which, according to U.S. officials, was led by Juan Francisco Patron Sanchez. Instead, Mexican officials alleged Patron Sanchez was a regional leader of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel. He was killed in 2017 in a shootout with Mexican marines.

U.S. authorities said in court documents that the cartel had numerous distribution cells in the U.S. when Cienfuegos led the Mexican military, including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Ohio, Minnesota, North Carolina and New York.

In Mexico, the cartel is accused of trafficking hundreds of firearms and committing “acts of horrific violence, including torture and murder, in order to protect against challenges from rival drug trafficking organizations, fight for territory and silence those who would cooperate with law enforcement.”

Cienfuegos made an initial court appearance Friday by video from his Los Angeles detention facility, wearing a dark-colored jacket and a face mask. He had an interpreter but answered U.S. District Judge Alexander MacKinnon’s procedural questions in English, saying “yes” and “yes, your honor.”

The judge ordered Cienfuegos held without bail until a hearing Tuesday in Los Angeles. His attorney, Duane Lyons, appeared by video and did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Cienfuegos was indicted by a grand jury in the Eastern District of New York on Aug. 14, 2019, on charges of conspiracy to participate in international distribution of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana and money laundering. He could face a mandatorys sentence of at least 10 years in prison if convicted on the conspiracy charges.

Federal prosecutors asked that Cienfuegos be denied bail, saying he is a major flight risk. They say he last visited the United States in March 2019, and if he were captured in Mexico, extradition to the U.S. could take years.

“While the United States and Mexico have an extradition treaty, it will be extremely difficult to apprehend the defendant in Mexico if the H-2 Cartel and powerful former government officials shield him,” Seth DuCharme, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, wrote the court.

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