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MEXICO : Army Shouldn't Fight War Against Drug Lords

June 25, 1995|Andrew A. Reding | Andrew A. Reding, an associate editor of Pacific News Service, directs the North America Project of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research

SANIBEL, FLA. — For a mix of technical and political reasons, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo has directed the armed forces to play a larger role in the fight against drug trafficking. The technological imperative is straightforward: Colombia's Cali cartel is shifting from propeller and turboprop to jet aircraft to deliver cocaine to Mexican cartels for transshipment to the United States. Consignments now arrive on aging commercial jetliners converted into cargo carriers. Limited to turboprop interceptors, the elite anti-drug units of the Federal Judicial Police are helpless to respond. Zedillo's solution is to scramble air force F-5 fighters and T-33 trainers.

The political imperative is no less urgent: to circumvent corruption in the federal police and persuade skeptical members of the U.S. Congress that Mexico is seriously attacking drug trafficking. What better way to look tough than to convert the figurative war on drugs into a real war? There is also a possible fringe benefit for the Mexican army: the opportunity to expand its counterinsurgency capabilities with dozens of military helicopters obtained from Washington.

However reasonable the use of Mexican jet interceptors as a stopgap solution, any wider militarization of the anti-drug effort is fraught with serious risks. Not the least of these is that the armed forces themselves are among the most corrupt of Mexican institutions. Former Secretary of Defense Gen. Juan Arevalo Gardoqui, for example, was one of several prominent officials whom U.S. prosecutors believe sanctioned the 1985 murder of Enrique Camarena, an agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency. In keeping with an unwritten rule that forbids prosecution of members of the Cabinet and the military high command, he was not seriously investigated.

With impunity at the top, corruption permeates the ranks, reinforced by military discipline. A 1991 massacre in Veracruz hints at the risks of a greater anti-drug role for the military. Army units stationed at Tlalixcoyan slaughtered a planeload of federal anti-narcotics police after they landed in hot pursuit of a Colombian plane. Although the government sought to portray the incident as a case of mistaken identity, autopsies revealed that some of the agents had been tortured, then executed. The troops, it turned out, were protecting the traffickers, whose plane was about to be refueled to fly to the United States. The local commander was eventually imprisoned, but then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari barred any investigation into the possible responsibility of his superiors.

Further underscoring the problem of accountability is the fate of a brigadier general who tried to tackle corruption from the inside. In October, 1993, Gen. Jose Francisco Gallardo proposed appointment of an ombudsman to watch over possible corruption and human-rights violations in the armed forces. In response, the high command threw Gallardo into the brig. Despite several court decisions dismissing the charges, he remains in confinement.

By refusing to honor the federal courts, the army is resurrecting the ghost of the Latin American fuer o, which has allowed the armed forces to operate "outside" the law and civilian control. For the first time in more than half a century, it is showing similar impatience with the executive branch, where it now senses weakness. Last year, the army bridled under the cease-fire imposed in Chiapas by Salinas but dared not confront him. Then last February, it prevailed on Zedillo, who was badly hurt by the peso devaluation, to allow it to seize rebel territory. Most telling was the end-run around Interior Minister Esteban Moctezuma Barragan, ordinarily the most influential political figure after the president. Moctezuma learned of the army advance on TV.

Such maneuvers underscore the diverging interests of the political and military bureaucracies. The former, preoccupied with restoring economic stability, is at pains to persuade the United States that it is serious about cracking down on drug trafficking and about resolving civil disputes through peaceful means. The army, meantime, is reluctant to become involved in drug interdiction, which it sees as a civilian problem. Its priority--or more accurately, obsession--is to suppress the Chiapas insurgency.

Thus, the quid pro quo between Zedillo and the armed forces. In return for agreeing to a greater role in the drug war, the army hopes to get Blackhawk helicopters that can do double duty against peasant insurgencies. We have seen this pattern before: In Colombia, U.S. weapons earmarked for the war on drugs were used to fight guerrillas.

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