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Ex-Mexican military boss pleads not guilty in US drug case

Associated Press

New York – Former Mexican defense secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos has pleaded not guilty to U.S. drug trafficking and money laundering charges.

Cienfuegos, who led Mexico’s army for six years under ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto, made a remote appearance on Thursday in federal court in New York City. A judge ordered him held without bail until his next court appearance on Nov. 18.

The defendant had been brought to the city on Wednesday after being held in California following his arrest last month at Los Angeles International Airport.

Now that Cienfuegos Zepeda is in New York, “we will consider all appropriate legal applications including those related to bail and discovery,” his lawyers said in a statement.

In this Sept. 16, 2016, file photo, Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, left, and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, salute during the annual Independence Day military parade in Mexico City's main square.

Cienfuegos, 72, served from 2012 to 2018 as secretary of defense under Peña Nieto. He is the highest-ranking former Cabinet official arrested since the top Mexican security official Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas in 2019. Garcia Luna, who served under former President Felipe Calderón, has pleaded not guilty to drug trafficking charges.

The hearing on Thursday was briefly delayed after technical difficulties resulting from people not muting their phones after calling in to listen to the proceedings on a conference call.

Under Cienfuegos, the Mexican army was accused of frequent human rights abuses, but that was true of both his predecessors and his successor in the post. The worst scandal in Cienfuegos’ tenure involved the 2014 army killings of suspects in a grain warehouse.

The June 2014 massacre involved soldiers who killed 22 suspects at the warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya. While some died in an initial shootout with the army patrol – in which one soldier was wounded – a human rights investigation later showed that at least eight and perhaps as many as a dozen suspects were executed after they surrendered.