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Mexico calls for internal DEA probe of 'fabricated' case against minister

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s president said on Friday the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration should carry out an internal investigation into the conduct of its case against a former defense minister, putting further strain on bilateral ties with the new Biden administration.

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President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the investigation should look into who within the DEA “fabricated” the case against Salvador Cienfuegos, days after Mexico’s attorney general decided to drop charges.

“I am not going to go to any international body, but I respectfully believe (the DEA) should do an internal investigation and clarify what happened, who made the file, who gave the order to apply it,” said Lopez Obrador during a regular news conference.

The U.S. arrest of Cienfuegos in October on drug charges ruffled feathers in Mexico, which retaliated with restrictions on DEA intelligence gathering. Lopez Obrador then angered Washington by publishing a large dossier from the case that the United States had provided in confidence.

Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the DEA, called the case solid and said Mexico was “shooting itself in the foot” by continuing to claim that evidence was fabricated.

“The current administration has shown itself to be an unreliable partner in pursuing criminal cases,” Vigil said in an interview. “The idea that the evidence is fabricated is sheer nonsense.”

The ongoing fallout risks further souring ties just as Biden takes over from Donald Trump, with whom the left-leaning Mexican president had struck an unlikely friendship.

Both governments said Lopez Obrador and Biden would speak by phone on Friday afternoon. They gave no detail about what subjects the call would include.

While tensions over security have simmered in the first days of Biden’s administration, Lopez Obrador has praised him for quick action on immigration reform. Mexico has kept up cooperation on immigration issues that began under Trump, putting pressure on Central American governments to break up a large U.S.-bound caravan earlier this week.

“INCONSISTENCIES”

Cienfuegos, a member of former President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government, was arrested in October at Los Angeles international airport, accused by U.S. prosecutors of collaborating with a splinter of a powerful drug cartel.

He returned to Mexico in November after a federal judge granted a U.S. government request to drop charges against him and turn the investigation over to Mexico, citing diplomatic sensitivities. Cienfuegos has denied any wrongdoing.

The Mexican attorney general’s office said earlier in January the U.S. case was not strong enough to warrant charges against Cienfuegos, a decision Lopez Obrador publicly backed.

Lopez Obrador said the hundreds of pages of evidence the DEA provided, which he ordered to be shared publicly online, were riddled with inconsistencies. “There is no way that we are going to invent crimes,” said Lopez Obrador. “We have said that if the DEA has additional information to present it.”

The U.S. investigation published by the Mexican government appeared to be largely based on messages picked up from a Blackberry device. The alleged messages from Cienfuegos are littered with typographical errors and spelling mistakes.

The U.S. embassy in Mexico City referred a request for comment to the Department of Justice. A spokesman for the DEA, a division of Justice, did not immediately respond.

Reporting by Anthony Esposito, Raul Cortes and Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, William Maclean and Rosalba O’Brien

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