Mexico says US ‘fabricated’ drug charges on former defense minister, releases evidence

Mexico's then defense minister, General Salvador Cienfuegos, addresses an audience during the 50th anniversary of the Plan of Assistance to the Population in case of Disaster (Plan DN-III-E) in Mexico City on July 12, 2017. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo)
Mexico's then defense minister, General Salvador Cienfuegos, addresses an audience during the 50th anniversary of the Plan of Assistance to the Population in case of Disaster (Plan DN-III-E) in Mexico City on July 12, 2017. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo)
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Updated 16 January 2021

Mexico says US ‘fabricated’ drug charges on former defense minister, releases evidence

Mexico's then defense minister, General Salvador Cienfuegos, addresses an audience during the 50th anniversary of the Plan of Assistance to the Population in case of Disaster (Plan DN-III-E) in Mexico City on July 12, 2017. (REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo)
  • Prosecutors said intercepted messages showed that Cienfuegos accepted bribes in exchange for ensuring the military did not take action against the cartel
  • Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office said Cienfuegos had not been found to have any illicit or abnormal income

MEXICO CITY: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Friday that the US Drug Enforcement Administration had “fabricated” drug trafficking accusations against his country’s former defense minister and then his government published what he said was the entire case file provided by US authorities when they sent him back to Mexico.
The unprecedented move came one day after Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office announced it was dropping the drug trafficking case against retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos. The 751-page file included transcripts of intercepted Blackberry messenger exchanges that were marked: “Shared per court order, not for further distribution.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if release of the documents would affect other court cases in the US.
The US government dropped its charges against Cienfuegos in November in a diplomatic concession to the important bilateral relationship and sent him back to Mexico, where he was immediately released.
López Obrador said there was a lack of professionalism in the US investigation and suggested that there could have been political motivations behind US authorities’ arrest of Cienfuegos at Los Angeles International Airport in October, noting that the investigation had been ongoing for years, but the arrest came shortly before US presidential elections.
The US government quickly responded that it reserved the right to prosecute Cienfuegos in the future. López Obrador’s comments threatened to get the security relationship with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden off to a rocky start.
López Obrador said Friday that Mexican prosecutors had dropped the case because the evidence shared by the United States had no value to prove he committed any crime.
“Why did they do the investigation like that?” López Obrador said. “Without support, without proof?”
The released documents include purported text messages from December 2015 between two drug gang figures based in Nayarit state that refer to a meeting at the Defense Department with a man they describe as ”The Godfather” at one point and as “Salvador Sinfuego Sepeda” at another.
In the exchange between Daniel Silva-Garate and Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, both of whom later were killed, Silva-Garate describes being picked up by men with short, military-style haircuts who tell him they are going to the Defense Department headquarters in Mexico City and describe a meeting with “The Godfather.”
He wants you to work so there is a crapload of money,” Silva Garate texts his boss. “We have to do something from Colombia.”
Silva-Garate tells his boss the “The Godfather” told him “Now we are going to do big things with you … that what you have done is small-time.”
Patrón Sanchez says he wants unmolested routes to ship drugs from Colombia and Silva Garate texts back, “He says that as long as he is here, you will be free … that they will never carry out strong operations,” or raids.
Silva Garate tells his boss the “The Godfather” told him that, “You can sleep peacefully, no operation will touch you.”
Speaking at his daily news conference Friday, López Obrador insisted his government would cover up for no one.
“We’re not going to fabricate crimes. We’re not going make up anything,” he said. “We have to act based on the facts, the evidence, the realities.”
López Obrador acknowledged that many Mexicans have confidence in the US justice system, seeing them as “the good judges, flawless, those don’t make mistakes, those are honest.”
“In this case, with all respect, those that did this investigation did not act with professionalism,” he said.
Nicole Navas Oxman, acting deputy director of public affairs at the US Department of Justice said, “The United States reserves the right to recommence its prosecution of Cienfuegos if the Government of Mexico fails to do so.”
In a statement Thursday night, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office went beyond just announcing it was closing the case by clearing the general entirely.
“The conclusion was reached that General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda never had any meeting with the criminal organization investigated by American authorities, and that he also never had any communication with them, nor did he carry out acts to protect or help those individuals,” the office said in a statement.

It said Cienfuegos had not been found to have any illicit or abnormal income, nor was any evidence found “that he had issued any order to favor the criminal group in question.”
A seven-year investigation by the US authorities was completely disproved by Cienfuegos within five days of having the US evidence shown to him, the statement said.
All charges were dropped and Cienfuegos, who was never placed under arrest after he was returned by US officials, is no longer under investigation.
López Obrador asked why he’d been arrested so close to the US election. “What was the message? Who from? What were they trying to do, weaken the Mexican government, weaken Mexico’s armed forces, spark a conflict with the current government?”
Gladys McCormick, an associate professor in history at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said the only surprise was that Mexico didn’t make a better show of looking into Cienfuegos.
“One would think that they would have at least followed through on some semblance of an investigation, even if it was just to put some window dressing on the illusion that the rule of law exists,” McCormick said. “From the Mexican side, this signals the deep-seated control the military as an institution has on power. It also shows that the level of complicity at play in this case.”
López Obrador has given the military more responsibility and power than any president in recent history, relying on it to build massive infrastructure projects and most recently to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, in addition to expanded security responsibilities.
Cienfuegos was arrested after he was secretly indicted by a federal grand jury in New York in 2019. He was accused of conspiring with the H-2 cartel in Mexico to smuggle thousands of kilos of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana while he was defense secretary from 2012 to 2018.
Prosecutors said intercepted messages showed that Cienfuegos accepted bribes in exchange for ensuring the military did not take action against the cartel and that operations were initiated against its rivals. He was also accused of introducing cartel leaders to other corrupt Mexican officials.
Under the pressure of Mexico’s implicit threats to restrict or expel US agents, US prosecutors dropped their case so Cienfuegos could be returned to Mexico and investigated under Mexican law.
Acting US Attorney Seth DuCharme told a judge at the time, “The United States determined that the broader interest in maintaining that relationship in a cooperative way outweighed the department’s interest and the public’s interest in pursuing this particular case.”
Even though the US yielded on Cienfuegos, Mexico’s Congress a few weeks later passed a law that will restrict US agents in Mexico and remove their diplomatic immunity.
Those restrictions, combined with dropping the case against Cienfuegos and suggesting the DEA made up the case against Mexico’s former defense secretary, could sour the security relationship for the Biden administration, experts say.
“It is surely going to be a relationship of much more mistrust,” said Ana Vanessa Cárdenas Zanatta, a political science professor at Monterrey Technological and Anahuac universities in Mexico City. “This gives Biden all of the cards to distrust the relationship with Mexico so that they continue in secrecy and resume the pressure on the Mexican government of ‘what are you doing in the fight against drug trafficking?’”
Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former chief of international operations, said clearing Cienfuegos “could be the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as US-Mexico cooperation in counter-drug activities.”
“It was preordained that Mexican justice would not move forward with prosecuting General Cienfuegos,” Vigil said. “It will greatly stain the integrity of its judicial system and despite the political rhetoric of wanting to eliminate corruption, such is obviously not the case. The rule of law has been significantly violated.”


Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor

Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor
Updated 25 min 49 sec ago

Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor

Pakistani PM urges Sri Lanka to join China corridor
  • Khan woos business leaders with promise of ‘religious tourism’

COLOMBO: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday opened Pakistan’s doors to “religious tourism” from Sri Lanka, inviting business leaders to visit the historically rich Gandharan region in the northwest of the country where a 40-foot statue of sleeping Buddha was recently unearthed.

He also sought their participation in Islamabad’s multibillion-dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project with Beijing.

“Pakistan has probably the most undiscovered religious tourism. For people in Sri Lanka, what is of great interest is the Gandhara Buddhist civilization. We have discovered various new sites for tourists to visit Pakistan,” Khan told delegates at the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference in Colombo.

The event was attended by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunwardena, and a host of officials.

Khan added that the Buddhist civilization was “discovered in the north of Islamabad,” the capital of Pakistan, and that “the findings will be of interest to Sri Lankan tourists who go to historical places.”

“Pakistan will do its best to restore Sri Lanka’s tourist industry,” he added.

Earlier on Wednesday, during talks with Rajapaksa, Khan said that both countries were “on the same page” on the need to alleviate poverty in their respective nations.

“We both agreed that poverty is due to food inflation, and this problem could be solved by bridging the gap between the producer and the consumer,” he said, citing the example of China, which had “successfully uplifted more than 700 million people.”

“Successful trading relations will help alleviate poverty. Pakistan is part of the One Belt and Road initiative of China, and CPEC is one of its flagship programs, and it means connectivity, and it will help enhance Sri Lanka’s connectivity right up to Central Asia,” he said.

China has pledged more than $60 billion for infrastructure projects in Pakistan as part of CPEC, central to Beijing’s wider Belt and Road Initiative, for the development of land and sea trade routes in Asia and beyond.

Khan also underlined the “exceptional quality” of Pakistan-Sri Lanka relations which are “marked by trust, understanding and mutual support,” before inviting Rajapaksa to visit Pakistan at the “earliest convenience.”

The Pakistani leader also stressed the importance of building a “robust economic partnership characterized by enhanced bilateral trade, investments, and commercial cooperation.”

Sri Lanka’s business leaders agreed.

“The first-ever investment forum with 39 Pakistani business magnates will pave the way for development in trade and investments,” Bandula Dissananayake, secretary-general of the Sri Lanka National Chamber of Commerce, told Arab News.

On Monday, both prime ministers witnessed several economically important agreements between Sri Lanka and Pakistan for development in tourism cooperation, investment, technology and education.

Pakistan’s exports to Sri Lanka grew from $97 million in 2004 to $355 million in 2018, while Sri Lanka’s exports to Pakistan grew from $47 million in 2004 to $105 million in 2018, almost double over the same period.

However, the two-way trade totals only $460 million, despite the potential to garner more than $2 billion.

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UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer
Updated 24 February 2021

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer
  • The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs

LONDON: British clinical trials of vaccines against new variants of COVID-19 will start in the summer to prepare updated jabs for the autumn if variants evade the current inoculations, the Oxford University vaccine group’s lead researcher has told the UK Parliament.

Prof. Sarah Gilbert said her team is producing an initial group of vaccines against new variants that are at least partially resistant to the current jabs being rolled out.

The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs.

A small trial in South Africa found that a variant that emerged there, and which has since arrived in the UK, is partially resistant to the Oxford vaccine.

Vaccines from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson also appear less effective against the South African variant.

“We need to make preparations so that everything is in place, if it turns out that we do need to do it,” Gilbert told British MPs.

“Currently, the plans are to be ready for an immunization campaign in the autumn, so before going into the winter season we’d have a new variant vaccine available if it turns out that’s what’s going to be required,” she added.
“If we see the emergence of a new strain very close to that date, it’s going to be difficult to go through this whole process, because we do need to conduct a clinical study and get regulatory approval, in time to be vaccinated before the winter.”
Gilbert said trials are underway to judge whether mixing vaccines will provide better protection against COVID-19 by stimulating the immune system in different ways.
The Oxford vaccine group is also looking at producing nasal spray and pill alternatives to the standard inoculation.
 


EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19
Updated 24 February 2021

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19
  • Some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again
  • Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination

BRUSSELS: European Union leaders will agree on Thursday to work on certificates of vaccination for EU citizens who have had an anti-COVID shot, with southern EU countries that depend heavily on tourism desperate to rescue this summer’s holiday season.
Lockdowns to slow the pandemic caused the deepest ever economic recession in the 27-nation bloc last year, hitting the south of the EU, where economies are often much more dependent on visitors, disproportionately hard.
With the rollout of vaccines against COVID-19 now gathering pace, some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again.
However, other countries, such as France and Germany, appear more reluctant, as officials there say it could create de facto vaccination obligation and would be discriminatory to those who cannot or will not take a jab.
France, where anti-vaccine sentiment is particularly strong and where the government has pledged not to make them compulsory, considers the idea of vaccine passports as “premature,” a French official said on Wednesday.
Work is needed on the details, including whether it should be in digital form, be accepted globally and at what stage of the two-step inoculation process it should be issued.
“We call for work to continue on a common approach to vaccination certificates,” a draft statement of the leaders video-conference seen by Reuters said, without setting a time-frame for a result.
Officials said the EU was working with the International Air Transport Association, which is keen to revive air travel, and with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Health Organization.
But travel with certificates also raised legal questions, officials said, because those last in line for vaccinations could argue their freedom of movement was unjustly restricted by the often months-long queues.
EU officials also point out there is no guidance yet from the WHO and EU agencies whether people who have received two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine can still carry the coronavirus and infect others, even if no longer vulnerable themselves.
It was also not clear if people could be infectious having already fought off the coronavirus themselves, for how long they remained immune and if they too should get certificates.
“There are still many things we don’t know,” a senior official from one of the EU countries said. “We need more time to come to a common line.”
But time is short for countries in the south, where the hospitality sector needs to know what it should prepare for in the coming months. Despite the official stance that all EU governments want to solve the issue together, some might decide to move faster individually.
Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination.


UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine

UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine
Updated 24 February 2021

UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine

UK team testing tablet, spray alternatives to COVID-19 vaccine
  • Researcher Sarah Gilbert: We have flu vaccines that are given by nasal spray, and this could be a very good approach in the future to use vaccines against coronaviruses
  • Sarah Gilbert: It’s also possible to consider oral vaccination where you have to take a tablet that will give the immunization, and that would have a lot of benefits for vaccine rollout

LONDON: Researchers who produced the Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine are assessing the use of tablets or nasal sprays to replace jabs.

Lead researcher Sarah Gilbert told a parliamentary committee that “we’re … thinking about second-generation formulations of vaccines” that could replace injections, but they will “take time to develop.”

She added: “We have flu vaccines that are given by nasal spray, and this could be a very good approach in the future to use vaccines against coronaviruses.

“It’s also possible to consider oral vaccination where you have to take a tablet that will give the immunization, and that would have a lot of benefits for vaccine rollout — if you didn’t need to use the needles and syringes for people.”

Both options “will have to be tested for safety and then for efficacy as well, because the immune responses that will be generated by both of those approaches will be a little bit different to what we get from an intramuscular injection,” Gilbert said.

Kate Bingham, who chaired the UK government’s vaccines taskforce, said two injections given by healthcare professionals is “not a good way of delivering vaccines.”

She told the BBC: “We need to get vaccine formats which are much more scalable and distributable, so whether they’re pills or patches or nose sprays.”


Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer

Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer
Updated 24 February 2021

Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer

Iran arrested French tourist nine months ago, says his lawyer

DUBAI: Iran has detained a French tourist for nine months and his lawyers have been denied access to him, one of the lawyers, Saeid Dehghan, told Reuters on Wednesday.
The arrest, if confirmed, would come at a sensitive time, when the United States and European parties to Iran's 2015 nuclear deal are trying to restore the pact that was abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018.
"His name is Benjamin and he is being held at the Vakilabad prison in the city of Mashahd. He was detained nine months ago and he faces contradictory and baseless charges," said Dehghan, who declined to give the French tourist's full name.
Iran's judiciary was not available to comment. There was no immediate official reaction from French authorities to the news.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners in recent years, mostly on espionage charges, including Franco-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, whom Tehran sentenced to six years in prison in May 2020 for security-related charges.
Adelkhah was released on furlough last October. Dehghan, who is also Adelkhah's lawyer, said she had been under house arrest since then.
"Of course, Adelkhah is wearing an ankle monitor which limits her movements to 300 m (985 feet) from home,” Dehghan said.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in a speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday called for Adelkhah's release. Tehran, which does not recognise dual nationality, has rejected France's calls to release Adelkhah.
French daily newspaper Le Figaro reported on Friday that a person with dual French and Iranian citizenship and a German national had been arrested in Iran more than two weeks ago.