LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Mexico’s former defense minister, Salvador Cienfuegos, was ordered held in U.S. custody without bail on Tuesday, pending his trial on drug trafficking charges in a case that could have far-reaching implications for U.S. and Mexican anti-cartel strategy.
A U.S. magistrate judge also ordered Cienfuegos, 72, sent to New York to stand trial. Cienfuegos was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport last week.
Magistrate judge Alexander MacKinnon denied a request from Cienfuegos’ attorney for his release on a $750,000 bond, saying that his prominent position and ties to Mexico posed a significant flight risk.
There are “no conditions that will reasonably assure the defendant’s appearance at future court proceedings,” the judge said.
Cienfuegos was indicted in federal court in New York on four counts of drug trafficking and money laundering. Prosecutors say he took bribes in return for protecting drug cartel members, which included warning them about U.S. investigations.
He is accused of using his office to protect the H-2 narcotics cartel, an offshoot of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, directing operations against rival gangs, and finding maritime transport for the shipment of drugs including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.
Cienfuegos has not yet entered a plea to the charges.
The arrest of Cienfuegos – nicknamed El Padrino, or ‘The Godfather,’ in an August 2019 indictment that was sealed until last week – marked the first time a former Mexican defense minister has been indicted and detained.
Cienfuegos, a retired army general, served in the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto from 2012 to 2018. Several of Pena Nieto’s aides and party members have been accused of corruption.
Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s former security minister under President Felipe Calderon, has also pleaded not guilty in the United States to charges of accepting bribes from Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel.
There had been no prior open probe of Cienfuegos in Mexico. The country’s armed forces have generally been perceived as less prone to corruption than the police, and Cienfuegos’ downfall has embarrassed the once highly trusted institution.
The H-2 gang grew out of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, founded by brothers from the same town as ‘El Chapo.’
Current Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says his predecessors presided over a debilitating increase in corruption in Mexico, for years convulsed by horrific levels of drug gang violence.
(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Rosalba O’Brien)