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COLUMN ONE : The Drug Web That Entangles Mexico : The nation's deepening crises and a new attack on corruption expose the sinister ties between cartels and government, investigators say.

MEXICO IN CRISIS. The Rise of "Narco-politics." First of two parts


MEXICO CITY — Six months ago, President Ernesto Zedillo took over a nation in crisis. A confidential report that landed on his desk in his first week spelled out a major reason why--drugs.

The warning from the government's National Institute for Combatting Drugs was ominous: The increasing power of Mexico's drug cartels threatens the nation's stability and, indeed, could ultimately make the country ungovernable.

That power lies at the root of the swirling political crisis, the emerging economic disaster and the assassinations that have bred a new sense of national insecurity.

"As a result of the financial capacity of these drug-trafficking organizations, the tendency to infiltrate the government and financial structures will continue," said the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. "The power of the drug-trafficking organizations could lead to situations of ungovernability, using whatever political or economic space in which institutions show weakness or inattention; the advance of drug-trafficking promotes impunity and uncertainty in the institutions, justifies violence and increases intimidation of the authorities."

Within weeks, those words took on prophetic urgency. The long-rumored ties between the highest levels of Mexico's government and the cartels that U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief Thomas Constantine says supply three-fourths of the cocaine sold in America became all too clear.

These ties are emerging in evidence supporting the arrests of two seemingly untouchable figures--the former chief narcotics investigator and the brother of the former president, both suspected of having direct links with the cartels. That evidence has opened a window onto what is known here as "narco-politics"--the collusion, based on converging financial interests, of the drug gangs and the very top of the Mexican power structure, including Zedillo's own ruling party.

Alarmed, the president decided that the cartels' infiltration of the government was a critical national security issue. He called in his attorney general, Antonio Lozano--the first member of the opposition to hold a Cabinet position--and gave him free rein to crack down on corruption and end official impunity.

The result: Police broke decades of tradition and arrested Raul Salinas de Gortari, elder brother of Zedillo's predecessor, and charged him with ordering the assassination of the ruling party's No. 2 man last year. They also opened an investigation into ties between Raul Salinas and Mexico's cartels.

Mounting Evidence

One week later, prosecutors charged Mario Ruiz Massieu, a former deputy attorney general whom former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari had appointed as Mexico's counter-narcotics chief, with covering up Raul Salinas' alleged role in last year's murder of the ruling party's secretary general--Ruiz Massieu's own brother. Both accused men have denied the charges, Raul Salinas through his lawyer and Ruiz Massieu at an extradition hearing in New Jersey on Wednesday.

In the months since, Lozano's investigators and U.S. drug enforcement agents have found mounting evidence of how deeply entrenched the cartels have become. In documenting ties between Raul Salinas and Ruiz Massieu and the cartels, investigators have been piecing together how, throughout the Salinas administration, drug gangs used their money to influence the running of the country.

Despite Zedillo's efforts to clean house, he and his Cabinet officials concede that drug corruption continues. And Clinton Administration officials have called it a threat to the security of America's border states, including California.

The two developing cases from the Salinas administration show how the drug corruption works and raise serious questions about whether Carlos Salinas was involved in wrongdoing during the years when he was the darling of two consecutive U.S. administrations. Salinas himself has no charges pending against him in Mexico or the United States, where he is currently residing. But the Mexican attorney general's office indicated this week that it is trying to determine whether Salinas knew about his brother's alleged involvement in the murder of Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

During his nine months as Mexico's chief anti-drug prosecutor, Mario Ruiz Massieu allegedly oversaw a nationwide network of corruption, receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks from prosecutors and police commanders protecting drug mafias, according to officials and investigative documents.

Raul Salinas has been linked to prominent officials accused of collusion with the cartel and to top drug traffickers, according to law enforcement officials and documents.

"[Mexico is] a country that right now is very vulnerable to the cartels," DEA chief Constantine told The Times in a recent interview. "They are on a tipping edge. Where they go in the next two to five years" will be decisive, he said.

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