A US judge decrees unconditional imprisonment for former Mexican general Cienfuegos in his drug trafficking trial | International

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Former President Enrique Peña Nieto greets General Salvador Cienfuegos.OMAR TORRES / AFP

A federal judge in Los Angeles, California, decreed this Monday unconditional imprisonment against Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, a former defense minister of Mexico, who will not be released from jail while facing serious drug trafficking charges against him. Judge Alexander MacKinnon accepted all the arguments of the federal prosecutor's office, which assures that Cienfuegos would flee to Mexico if he was released on bail and would take advantage of his contacts with organized crime to elude US justice. The Cienfuegos defense has offered to pay a bail of $ 750,000 (about 632,000 euros), which is "his life savings", but the judge has rejected this possibility.

The case against Cienfuegos is in federal court in Brooklyn, New York. The judge and the parties agreed that the order to transfer the general to New York will not be signed before this Friday. This is what the defense requested because the general has a Mexican lawyer who is in Los Angeles and has not yet been able to speak with him. Besides, the protocols for the covid-19 made it impossible to make the transfer before.

The former top position in the Mexican Army is charged by the US Department of Justice with four charges, three of them directly related to drug trafficking and one of money laundering related to that activity. The events described by the prosecution to request his unconditional imprisonment span from 2015 to 2017 and practically describe him as one more operative chief of the Beltrán Leyva cartel, one of the most violent in Mexico. The cartel commanders referred to him as the Godfather, and he appears under that name in the indictment.

The hearing was held virtually with four participants in a Zoom videoconference: the court secretary, the judge, the prosecutor and the Cienfuegos lawyer. Besides, the court has published the instructions to attend the hearing. The session began after one in the afternoon in Los Angeles (10 pm in mainland Spain) with the court clerk wondering who "all those people" who were connected to the call were. Later, he realized that the session could not be photographed or recorded.

The federal prosecutor's office, represented by prosecutor Ben Balding, has hardly had to defend the shocking letter that he sent last Friday to the court in which he assures that Cienfuegos, as head of the Mexican Army during the Government of Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI) , advised the cartel on the operations of its enemies, protected its operations from the actions of the Army and actively helped to expand its territory in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. The investigation was carried out by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for two years. Investigators say they have "thousands of communications" from the general's Blackberry terminal to prove their story.

Cienfuegos' US attorney, Duane Lyons, has not entered to debate any of the prosecution's claims against his client and has asked the court to admit to releasing the general on $ 750,000 bail. That amount, Lyons said, is "his lifetime savings" and the money he can raise right now. The lawyer has told the court that they would present evidence that it is Cienfuegos' personal money. "He could get more from family and friends but that's what he has right now." Lyons has assured the court that his client has no intention of eloping and that he is interested in appearing at trial to "clear his name" due to his reputation in Mexico.

The judge has acknowledged that it is a considerable sum, but has appreciated all the arguments of the prosecution to presume that Cienfuegos would flee to Mexico if he were released. Among them, he has highlighted that a person with his connections is easy to evade the action of justice. In addition, that the class of crimes for which he is accused provides an important incentive to flee. Each of the drug trafficking offenses carries a minimum penalty of 10 years in prison. The general is 72 years old. "It doesn't take a very high sentence to get a life sentence," said Judge MacKinnon.

Cienfuegos was arrested last Thursday upon arrival at the Los Angeles airport. He was accompanied by his family and traveled on a tourist visa. Cienfuegos visits to the United States have been infrequent over the years. According to the DEA, the previous time he was in the country was in March 2019. The DEA's complaint is dated March 14, 2009.

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