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'The Owl' Doesn't Blink When He Calls Mexico a 'Narco-Democracy' : Corruption: Former anti-drug official Eduardo Valle Espinosa's allegations have rocked the government.

October 01, 1994|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA and MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — The solitary corruption fighter who has rocked the government here and riveted the nation with his denunciations of "narco-politics" is not a tenacious prosecutor, a crusading politician or a tough cop.

They call him "the Owl."

He is a bespectacled, fiercely outspoken journalist named Eduardo Valle Espinosa. He is a former '60s-era student activist, left-wing congressman and top aide to Mexico's attorney general.

The Owl's persistence has made him a controversial overnight sensation at a turbulent time: The assassination Wednesday of a prominent leader of Mexico's ruling party--a crime being attributed to drug traffickers, political infighting or both--gives new urgency to Valle's warning that drug-related violence is menacing the nation's stability.

In May, Valle made headlines when he resigned as the head of an elite anti-drug unit and declared that corrosive corruption had turned Mexico into a "narco-democracy."

But that was just a prelude.

With public attention focused last month on Mexico's historic presidential elections, Valle sat down with Mexican investigators in Washington and gave seven hours of explosive testimony.

He provided detailed documents--investigative memos, wiretap transcripts. He named names, including a Cabinet-level official he linked to drug lords. And he discussed his theory that politically connected cartel forces took part in the March assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the ruling party presidential candidate.

The extraordinary allegations from a well-placed source have bolstered similar charges by critics of the government and triggered hasty denials from the Cabinet minister and an ambassador, playing into one of the most basic and universal concerns in Mexico today: The fear of the "Colombian-ization" of Mexican society. A recent survey by Mexico City's prominent daily Reforma found that 80% of Mexicans believe that drug trafficking is the most serious threat facing the country.

Valle asserted in a recent interview with The Times that the drug cartels have become "a state within the state."

"The difference is that in Colombia, the drug traffickers have negotiated directly with the state, as if they were another state," Valle said. "In Mexico, it has not reached this point. It is hidden; it has not reached the Colombian level in form. But in terms of the power of the cartels, it has."

For all the resulting media attention, Valle's former employers in the attorney general's office have seemed distinctly unimpressed. Six days after his first disclosures, the nation's chief prosecutor issued an aggressive blanket denial of his charges.

But privately, sources in Mexico's ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, appear to be taking Valle more seriously.

Political analysts say President-elect Ernesto Zedillo, who campaigned on pledges of sweeping law enforcement reform, may well use the Owl's investigation to make an example of officials in the current government.

Although none would be quoted by name, Zedillo's aides indicated that he has followed Valle's disclosures closely and that he plans to make the fight against the cartels a top priority after he takes office Dec. 1.

The present government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari also may well act preemptively, using Valle's charges to ferret out at least a handful of corrupt officials in what political analysts in the capital say is the traditional, end-of-term housecleaning in the six-year Mexican presidency known as the sexenio .

It remains to be seen whether any crackdown would go beyond the symbolic purges by past administrations and whether this week's murder of Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the secretary general of the PRI and a close ally of both Salinas and Zedillo, will provide further impetus for reform.

But the most persistent speculation regarding "narco-politics" has centered on Emilio Gamboa Patron, the 44-year-old minister of communications and transport. Valle paints him as a point man for the cartels. Traffickers use the minister's vast fiefdom of airports and highways to move drugs with impunity, according to Valle.

Gamboa, who has staunchly defended himself against the charges in a news conference, is a former rival of Zedillo's for the ruling party presidential nomination.

But Valle's charges go far beyond a single government ministry, embracing the biggest criminal case in the land--the March assassination that changed the course of Mexican politics.

Regarding the role of "narco-politics" in the Colosio case, Valle has offered several leads to the special prosecutor investigating the assassination. But he admits that he has little concrete proof for his suspicions.

So far, investigators have not found evidence against three Colosio campaign officials about whom Valle raised questions, according to sources close to the probe.

"As far as the Colosio case is concerned, Valle did not present new proof," an official said.

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