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US threatens to end co-operation with Mexico on criminal cases

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The US threatened to stop sharing information on criminal investigations with Mexico after it published hundreds of pages of evidence gathered by US prosecutors against the country’s former defence minister — a case President Andrés Manuel López Obrador dismissed as fabricated.

The move, which ratchets up bilateral tensions less than a week before Joe Biden’s inauguration, came after Mexico’s foreign ministry on Friday published 751 pages of evidence, including transcripts of cell phone messages, sent by US prosecutors to Mexico for it to conduct its own investigation into General Salvador Cienfuegos. ­­­­

Mexico’s attorney-general’s office said it reviewed the evidence, found it baseless and threw out the case.

Mr López Obrador then accused Washington of making up trafficking and money laundering charges against the retired four star general, who was arrested in Los Angeles in October but freed and sent home a month later after intense diplomatic lobbying by Mexico.

A Department of Justice spokesperson said the US “fully stands by its investigation and charges in this matter” and was “deeply disappointed by Mexcio’s decision to publicise information shared with Mexico in confidence”.

“Publicising such information violates the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance between Mexico and the United States and calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico’s own criminal investigations,” the spokesperson added.

The spokesperson said the US reserved the right to “recommence its prosecution of Cienfuegos if the Government of Mexico fails to do so.”

The arrest of Gen. Cienfuegos was deeply embarrassing for Mexico and sparked fury among the military top brass, many of whom were appointed by the former minister.

Mr López Obrador has made the armed forces a key ally, relying on them to build his flagship airport and other infrastructure projects, to bolster the ranks of his new police force and help distribute Covid-19 vaccines.

Mexico was not tipped off in advance about Gen. Cienfuegos’ arrest and Mr López Obrador accused the US of violating an international accord by not sharing information about the case.

“This is a very far-reaching and delicate matter but we cannot allow doubt to be cast on the government of the Republic and or its institutions so for that reason we took the decision to make public the file in its entirety,” Mr López Obrador said on Friday.

“We apologise to the government of the United States for acting in this manner because . . . they can say how dare they make this document public,” he added.

But he said the “prestige of the nation” was at stake and “we cannot be hostages to anyone and we have sufficient moral and political authority to take these decisions, which is why we are going to publish the entire file”.

He said the documents made “clear the evidence that was supposedly collected over many years is not solid” and said the US Drug Enforcement Administration had acted with “very little professionalism”.

After Gen. Cienfuegos was returned home, Mexico rushed through a new law requiring foreign agents, such as officers of the DEA, to share information on its investigations — a move that threatened to hobble essential bilateral security and anti-narcotics co-operation.

It then toned down some of the law’s reach in regulations, but one former senior military official said the new rules were still “impractical”.