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Mexico ex-defense chief held in US on drug allegations


Mexico’s former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos has been arrested in the United States on suspicion of links with drug trafficking, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Friday.

Cienfuegos, who was defense chief from 2012 to 2018, is reported to have been on a trip with his family when he was detained at Los Angeles airport on Thursday.

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“It’s a very regrettable fact that a former defense minister is arrested, accused of links with drug trafficking,” Lopez Obrador told reporters.

“Of course, all this must be proven,” he said, adding that the US authorities were expected to announce the reasons for the arrest later Friday.

“We’re facing an unprecedented situation” Lopez Obrador said, noting that two former Mexican ministers are now detained in the US on allegations of links to drug cartels.

The arrests were a clear indication that Mexico was previously run by “a narco-government and without doubt a mafia government,” added the leftist leader, who came to power in 2018 vowing to crack down on corruption.

Ex-public security minister Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in December 2019 on charges of taking huge bribes to allow the notorious Sinaloa cartel to ship drugs into the US.

He pleaded not guilty.

According to US media, Cienfuegos was detained at the request of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in connection with a corruption investigation.

Contacted by AFP, a DEA spokesman declined to comment.

Cienfuegos is not under investigation in Mexico, Lopez Obrador said.

– ‘Operation Godfather’ –

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard announced the shock arrest on Twitter late Thursday.

“The consul in Los Angeles will inform me of the charges in the next few hours. We will offer the consular assistance to which he is entitled,” Ebrard said.

The Mexican investigative magazine Proceso, quoting unnamed sources at the US Department of Justice, reported that the arrest was the result of a long-standing investigation named “Operation Godfather” into corruption involving drug traffickers.

It said other senior military officials had also come under investigation when US authorities began to collect evidence against drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who is serving a life sentence in the US.

Cienfuegos, 72, headed the defense ministry under former president Enrique Pena Nieto.

Pena Nieto also faces allegations of corruption during his 2012-2018 term in office.

Lopez Obrador is pushing for a referendum on whether to prosecute Pena Nieto and four other predecessors over accusations including graft.

Mexico’s government militarized the fight against the drug cartels in 2006, since when more than 296,000 people have been murdered, according to the authorities, who say most of the killings are linked to gang violence.

While defense minister, Cienfuegos complained about his troops having to take part in the country’s war on drug trafficking, saying the military was not suited for the job.

“We didn’t ask to be here. We don’t like it. We didn’t study how to chase criminals,” he said.

“Our function is something else and it’s been made into something unnatural. We are doing things that don’t correspond to our training because there’s no one else to do them.”

Jennifer Gonzalez Covarrubias

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