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Trafficking : Killing of Mexico Drug Agents Poses a Tough Test for Salinas : The case of 7 slayings by soldiers challenges the president's commitment to the war on narcotics. So far, he has issued mixed signals.

November 29, 1991|MARJORIE MILLER and DOUGLAS JEHL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has come under growing pressure at home and in the United States to conduct an exhaustive investigation into the killing of seven federal drug agents by soldiers at a clandestine Veracruz airstrip earlier this month.

The highly sensitive case challenges Salinas' commitment to combatting drug trafficking. Mexican administrations rarely have pursued longstanding charges that members of the army are involved in drug trafficking.

Salinas has issued mixed signals as to how far he intends to take the case. His handpicked National Human Rights Commission is investigating the Nov. 7 attack--a sign that he may want to create sufficient public pressure to move against the army. But at the same time, senior officials are saying that the case must be investigated and tried by the military itself.

The army general suspected of overseeing a protection operation for the drug traffickers at the airstrip in Tlalixcoyan, Veracruz, has not been removed from his post pending the results of the commission's investigation, according to a senior Mexican official.

Gen. Alfredo Moran Acevedo was quoted in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada on Saturday as saying the attack "was not a massacre." He regretted that the press had focused on the seven dead and "not the 11 who remained alive."

The Mexican government is one of the few in Latin America that maintains its independence from the military, largely through an unwritten agreement by which civilians keep their distance from internal military affairs and the military stays out of politics.

"This is a very complicated issue for Salinas," said Roderic A. Camp, a political scientist at Tulane University in New Orleans who has written a book on the Mexican military. "He has maintained good relations with the military. . . . But this is forcing him into an awkward position."

U.S. and Mexican officials have said privately that they believe the soldiers deliberately shot to death the seven judicial police in the early morning of Nov. 7 while trying to protect a shipment of more than 800 pounds of cocaine arriving from South America.

Two planeloads of police had pursued the drug plane from the Mexican border to the airstrip in Veracruz. The first police plane to land reportedly came under fire from more than 100 soldiers surrounding the area. Seven agents on that plane died, while the commander and two pilots survived.

Three of the victims reportedly were shot at close range during the attack, which lasted more than two hours and was filmed from one of three surveillance planes overhead. Three traffickers from the drug-laden plane escaped through the army dragnet and remain at large.

Gen. Moran Acevedo and possibly another army general are suspected of running the protection operation. None of the soldiers involved in the shooting have been detained or removed from the area, according to another source, but two civilians have been arrested for trafficking the cocaine.

A senior Mexican official said soldiers or their officers would have to be tried by the military rather than by the civilian attorney general's office. The attorney general oversees the judicial police force that lost the seven men.

Mexican newspapers have called on Salinas to prevent a cover-up in the case.

But while lawmakers pushed for "an exhaustive investigation," some members also appeared to be deflecting public attention from the army's role in the attack to the role of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Customs Service.

At least one of the surveillance planes belonged to U.S. Customs, and customs agents were aboard two of the aircraft. The Chamber of Deputies asked the attorney general's office to clarify the activities of U.S. agents in Mexico.

Miller reported from Mexico City and Jehl from Washington.

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