Rage Over Mexico's Insults on Big Time Drug Case

Biden's Justice Department may not play the patsy like Bill Barr, who released Mexico's cartel-protecting former defense minister

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“We don’t need no stinking evidence.”

The iconic insults hurled at Humphrey Bogart by Mexican bandidos inThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre weren’t—word for word—in the Mexican government’s statement last week exonerating former Mexican defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos of drug trafficking and money laundering charges.

But they were close enough. Letting him off the hook “says, ‘Hey, fuck you, gringos,’” a retired DEA official says.

The agent, like many other American agents who investigated Cienfuegos for conspiring with a Mexican cartel, isn’t surprised that the Mexican government cleared the retired army general. Prominent Mexican figures are rarely prosecuted for corruption in their own country, and if they are there’s always a back story, usually involving their allegiance to a cartel competing with a more politically powerful criminal cabal.

The insult came in the speed of the exoneration—just two months after then-U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr dropped a U.S. indictment against Cienfuegos, stunning federal prosecutors in New York, where he was awaiting trial, and DEA agents everywhere, and allowed him to fly away home.

DEA agents expected that Mexican officials would bury the case for a year or so, then declare it closed for lack of evidence, or the deaths of witnesses, or some other excuse. Any excuse.

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But this time, Mexican officials didn’t even bother with appearances. Significantly, they didn’t ask for evidence, in the form of testimony from cartel insiders that U.S. prosecutors planned to call as witnesses. This testimony was crucial, because without insiders who knew the cartel leaders’ slang and the context of events, the investigators, and eventually a judge and jury, could not interpret the cryptic Blackberry texts between Cienfuegos and leaders of the H2 cartel, a splinter of the superpowered Sinaloa cartel.

Instead, the Mexican Attorney General’s office abruptly and unceremoniously declared Cienfuegos innocent of the charges and, worse, published the entire confidential file of raw intercepts of Cienfuegos texts, painstakingly recorded by DEA agents and handed over by Barr.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador poured salt on the wound by declaring that the DEA had forged the intercepts and the charges to frame the ex-general. “The most important thing is truth and justice,” the Mexican president said, according to Mexico News Daily. “So, the Attorney General’s Office resolved yesterday not to proceed with the accusation that was fabricated against General Cienfuegos … by the DEA.”

“I can’t believe they did it this quick, then accuse DEA of fabricating this evidence,” the ex-DEA official tells SpyTalk. “They’ve just thrown a big ‘fuck you, U.S.’ I don’t think they realize the effect this is going to have.”

AMLO, as the Mexican president is known, and his ministers may have miscalculated badly.

Although Bill Barr has already packed his bags and departed Washington, his successor, Acting A.G. Jeffrey Rosen, doesn’t seem to be in a forgiving mode. Late Friday, his spokesman gave reporters a statement asserting that “criminal charges against Cienfuegos were supported by the evidence”a signal that they may be reinstated. “Publicizing such information violates the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance between Mexico and the United States,” the Justice Department spokesman added, “and calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico’s own criminal investigations.”

Merrick Garland, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be Attorney General, could take an even more aggressive stand.

Garland cut his teeth on drug trafficking cases as a federal prosecutor during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. He went on to become Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department Criminal Division, supervising the Oklahoma City bombing investigation, among other major cases. Then in 1997 the Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Agents believe Garland, though soft-spoken, harbors no illusions about the influence of organized crime over Mexico City and won’t succumb to false promises of “cooperation.” In fact, some agents hope he will back a DEA counter-offensive, indicting governors, legislators, police chiefs and many other officials for corruptly conspiring with Mexican drug rings.

Mexican cartels are responsible for trafficking nearly all the illegal drugs sold on U.S. streets, and for the unprecedented wave of U.S., overdose deaths, which hit an all-time high at 83,335 fatalities in the year ending in June 2020, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention..

Meanwhile, the Cienfuegos file may not be good enough for the Mexican government, but it’s an intelligence bonanza for the H2 cartel and maybe other criminal organizations. Anyone who worries whether they were identified by the DEA investigation can read the file, determine whether they are in there and take countermeasures to duck and cover.

“Thanks for the stinking evidence, Bill Barr,” say the narcos of the Sierra Madre.

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