MEXICO CITY — In an apparent defensive reaction to charges that Mexican police tortured a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent last week, Mexican officials have begun to attack the presence of DEA agents in this country as an unnecessary invasion of foreign meddlers.
It is far from certain that the outcry signals the expulsion of DEA agents, who are supposed to work in concert with Mexican federal police to fight drug trafficking. A similar verbal campaign was launched against the DEA after the torture-killing early last year of another agent, Enrique S. Camarena.
But the uproar reflects an attitude of unease and often hostility toward open Mexican cooperation with the United States in many fields, including anti-narcotics campaigns. On Thursday, a cartoon in the influential newspaper Excelsior showed a pair of skunks scampering along a city street. One skunk was labeled "drug-trafficker, the other "DEA."
Mexico's defense minister, Gen. Juan Arevalo Gardoqui, has said that "the country does not require foreign persons or support to combat narcotics traffic." Arevalo is in charge of the military's drug crop eradication campaign.
The controversy heightens sensitivities at an already delicate moment in relations between Mexico and the United States on the issue of drug trafficking. The United States has charged that elements of the Jalisco state police beat and tortured DEA agent Victor Cortez Jr. after arresting him in Guadalajara a week ago Wednesday.
Elements of the same police force were accused by U.S. officials last year of kidnaping Camarena and turning him over to drug dealers who tortured and killed him.
The federal attorney general's office here has promised to investigate the Cortez case. So far, however, most public attention in Mexico has focused on the the U.S. agency, not on the Jalisco police.
The Foreign Ministry released a statement Thursday saying that the Mexican government never made any agreement with the United States to permit DEA agents to operate in this country.
The announcement surprised U.S. officials, who insisted that the the agency's presence in Mexico is based on longstanding agreements with the Mexican government.
Agreements Since 1930s
"We have been in Mexico under formal agreement since at least 1969," said spokesman Con Dougherty in Washington. "If they (the Mexicans) didn't want us there, we couldn't be there."
State Department spokesman Charles Redman said the United States has had agreements with the Mexican government since the 1930s calling for cooperation to combat narcotics traffic. He added that DEA agents have been accredited to U.S. diplomatic missions in Mexico since the 1960s.
Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Washington were meeting Thursday to discuss the future of their activities in Mexico, and one official said that among the options under consideration is pulling out.
The practice of the U.S. agents working in Mexico is to gather information from informants and surveillance operations and pass it on to Mexican police. The agents are not allowed to make arrests in this country.
Since the Cortez episode was made public, several Mexican officials have asserted that, agreement or no, foreign narcotics agents are unnecessary, at best, in Mexico's anti-drug effort. Members of the Mexican Congress have called for the expulsion of the DEA, and the Mexican Senate's Foreign Relations Committee is expected next month to take up the issue of the agency's activities in this country.
"There is no justification for having foreign spies in the country," said Sen. Norberto Mora Plancarte, a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Sen. Gonzalo Martinez Corbala, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said: 'We don't need them (the DEA), because Mexico's judicial police force is enough."
Some newspaper commentary strongly denounced DEA operations in Mexico.
Comparing the agency's presence to a "smelly sewer," columnist Pedro Penaloza wrote in the Mexico City newspaper El Universal: "It is not possible nor just that North American police meddling continues to be accepted and accommodated in our country."
Even a former police official who was convicted of accepting a bribe to allow one of Camarena's accused killers to flee the country had his say. In an interview with the newspaper La Jornada, cashiered policeman Armando Pavon Reyes accused the DEA of "sponsoring the crime of drug traffic by making connections with the drug Mafia."
Drug Smuggling an Irritant
Narcotics smuggling from Mexico to the United States has grown into a major irritant in U.S.-Mexican relations
Some U.S. officials have charged that the Mexican government is so riddled with corruption that it can do little to help stop drug traffic.
A failure so far to prosecute anyone for Camarena's murder continues to anger U.S. officials. There have been dozens of arrests in the case, but only Pavon Reyes has been convicted of anything. Several suspects are said to be still at large.