CULIACAN, Mexico — The government of Mexico, long used to looking at illicit narcotics as a big problem for the United States and a minor bother for itself, has decided that the trade is getting out of control in Sinaloa, a Pacific Coast farming state. In a region where country musicians sing the praises of drug lords, the government is changing its tune.
Drug smugglers had the run of Sinaloa in recent years. By all accounts, the trade went hand in hand with payoffs to corrupt officials. Policemen ignored traffickers and their gunmen who strolled the streets unmolested.
Sinaloa, once famous for its blood sausage, became known for its bloody shoot-outs and unsolved homicides. Here in Culiacan, the state capital, off-duty policemen once used a passing motorcyclist for target practice.
Meanwhile, farmers openly planted marijuana and opium poppies, the source of heroin, on government land. Cocaine shippers freely moved their cargoes to the United States--often with a police escort.
President Miguel de la Madrid, seeing his nationwide "moral renovation" campaign against graft drowning in Sinaloa, sent a new governor, Francisco Labastida, to clean up the state. The steps that Labastida has taken, along with army action ordered from Mexico City, hint at the toll taken on law enforcement by the drug trade.
Labastida fired 120 of Sinaloa's 800 state policemen and jailed 20 of them on a variety of charges. Four former state police officers were arraigned earlier this year in the torture-murder of a Culiacan youth.
The role of federal policemen in carrying out drug raids was turned over to the Mexican army. Soldiers are considered more trustworthy than the federales .
"The principal target for corruption is the police," said Fernando Garcia Felix, the coordinator for security in Sinaloa. "It's most attractive for criminals to corrupt the police. That way, they can act with impunity."
Labastida, while not claiming victory, talks of progress.
"You won't hear the rattle of machine guns at night anymore," he recently assured a reporter.
In private, Mexican officials say that corruption in Sinaloa represents no more than a patch on the broad fabric of drug-related graft in law enforcement. Yet the government has rarely moved to punish officials involved, preferring instead quiet dismissals or retirement.
Irritated U.S. officials charge that the extent of corruption makes it almost impossible to mount an effective joint effort against the drug traffic, even though the attorneys general of the two countries meet now and again and promise to take action against drugs.
'Don't Want Arrests'
"From my perspective, I haven't seen any change on the border," William Von Raab, head of the U.S. Customs Service, said not long ago. "The stuff is probably pouring across at a greater rate than it was a year ago."
Von Raab, long a vocal critic of Mexican anti-drug efforts, said that Mexico represents a "safe harbor" for smugglers.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), put it this way: "The corruption within the government makes the drug fight impossible. They (the Mexicans) don't want arrests to take place."
American drug enforcement officials say they have sure knowledge of the drug-graft connection in Mexico. The information came to light, they say, in the course of the investigation into the 1985 torture-killing of Enrique S. Camarena, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officer stationed in Guadalajara, and his Mexican pilot and informant, Alfredo Zavala. At the time, Camarena was investigating gangs that move cocaine from Colombia to the United States.
According to a U.S. intelligence source, the U.S. government "pulled out all the stops" in its efforts to find the killers. Among the tools used were CIA wiretaps in Mexico, some with the permission of the Mexican authorities and some, one source said, without.
Along with data gathered from DEA agents in Mexico, the taps not only produced lists of drug runners but scores of politicians, customs officials and federal and state police officials who cooperated with them.
"Drugs didn't cause corruption," one DEA agent said. "The corruption was already there, and drugs fed on it."
Names Kept Secret
For the most part, the names have been kept secret. Still, the investigation helped lead Mexican officials to arrest Rafael Caro Quintero, a known Sinaloa drug smuggler.
Caro Quintero's arrest did not come easy--for reasons that seem to confirm U.S. suspicions. He took off for Costa Rica from an airfield near Guadalajara that was being guarded by officers of the Federal Judicial Police. In order to ensure his escape, Caro Quintero wrote out a check for about $300,000, handed it to an aide and told the police commander it would be cashed and distributed the next day, DEA officials say.
Caro Quintero was captured in Costa Rica, extradited, and is now in a Mexico City jail awaiting trial.