Salvador Cienfuegos is charged with three counts of drug trafficking and one of money laundering in the US. He was arrested last month as he landed in the Los Angeles airport.

Mexico’s former defence minister Salvador Cienfuegos on Thursday pleaded not guilty to US charges of drug trafficking and money laundering while he was in government.

The 72-year-old retired general was a high-ranking member of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration from 2012-2018.

Cienfuegos allegedly abused his position “to help the H-2 Cartel, an extremely violent Mexican drug trafficking organisation,” according to the indictment filed by the New York City District Attorney’s Office.

He allegedly allowed the drug cartel “to operate with impunity in Mexico”, in exchange for bribes, it said, adding that he was even involved in finding maritime transport to ship drugs.

Cienfuegos stands accused of conspiring to produce and distribute “thousands of kilograms” of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the US between December 2015 and February 2017.

The indictment was filed in August 2019 but was only released last month, the day Cienfuegos was arrested after arriving at the Los Angeles International airport.

He was held in California and was transferred to New York this week where is he detained and facing trial.

The retired general has been charged with three counts of drug trafficking and one count of money laundering. If found guilty, he could face minimum imprisonment of 10 years and up to a life sentence.

Cienfuegos’ lawyer said he was presumed innocent of all charges.

“My legal team and I will ensure that Gen. Cienfuegos’ constitutional rights are protected as we zealously defend him,” one of his lawyers said. “We will consider all appropriate legal applications including those related to bail and discovery.”

The hearing was held via video-conferencing due to the coronavirus pandemic. The next court date, set for November 18, is scheduled to held in-person.

Testing US-Mexico cooperation

The arrest of Cienfuegos’ shocked the military establishment in Mexico and has strained the security cooperation with the US, particularly in the fight against powerful cartels.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador criticized US authorities for not sharing information prior to the arrest.

He also announced a review of the terms of cooperation with US agencies in Mexico, saying they work closely with officials who are later accused of collaborating with drug gangs.

“Regardless of whether Cienfuegos is guilty or not, all of this is now being questioned by the armed forces in Mexico; they’re very angry,” said Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s former ambassador to the US.