SANIBEL, FLA. — Since taking office, President Ernesto Zedillo has repeatedly pledged to create a "nation of law"--to put "an end to impunity" and strictly apply the letter of the law to all citizens, regardless of power or status. The arrest last week of reputed drug trafficker Juan Garcia Abrego is a welcome first step. Yet, it is nowhere near the coup portrayed by the U.S. and Mexican governments. Garcia Abrego and the Gulf Cartel that he allegedly headed were largely spent forces. Unless followed by far more daring ventures against the country's flourishing drug mega-enterprises and their political protectors, his capture will neither materially reduce the flow of drugs into the United States nor bolster the rule of law in Mexico.
Garcia Abrego's fall probably had more to do with the fate of his political protectors than with good police work. It is thought that the onetime Tamaulipas milkman became the dominant force in Mexico's narcotics transshipment business in the early 1990s by cultivating ties with the family and key political associates of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Some reports date Garcia's links to Salinas' older brother, Raul, to the beginning of the Salinas presidency. According to Eduardo Valle Espinosa, former head of the Federal Police task force targeting Garcia Abrego, the accused cartel leader also developed ties to two cabinet officials through a former federal policewoman on his payroll. Such connections would have made Garcia Abrego untouchable.
But with the transition to the Zedillo administration and the arrest of Raul Salinas in the assassination of a prominent political leader, the Salinas connection turned into his Achilles' heel. Stripped of high-level protection, Garcia Abrego became a hunted fugitive, and the Gulf Cartel rapidly lost market share to its competitors.
By the time Zedillo made his move, the arrest was less a blow against organized crime than masterful political theater. With the Mexican government due for another U.S. certification that it is cooperating in the war on drugs, Zedillo offered up Garcia Abrego, who was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. In so doing, the Mexican president repeated a similarly theatrical move by his predecessor. Six years ago, President Salinas ordered the arrest of accused drug trafficker Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, who was wanted in the murder of U.S. drug-enforcement agent Enrique Camarena. Although the action won accolades from the Bush administration, it also cleared the way for the rise of far more powerful criminal enterprises, including the Gulf Cartel.
Similar high praise is now coming from the White House. It's not that the Clinton administration doesn't know better. The Drug Enforcement Agency is well aware that most of the drugs now crossing the border are being handled by the Tijuana and Chihuahua cartels. Yet, President Bill Clinton wants to maintain good relations with Mexico City and create a record of achievement in controlling drug trafficking as he prepares for his reelection campaign.
Unfortunately, the major cause of lawlessness in Mexico continues to be unaddressed: the impunity with which high-ranking members of the government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party can break the law. Under an unwritten rule dating back to formation of the PRI, no present or former president or cabinet officer may be indicted for any crime, no matter how serious. Zedillo skirted that rule with the arrest of Raul Salinas, but he was careful not to break it. To head off any complication, he asked former President Salinas to leave the country. For the same reason, evidence that may implicate prominent members of the Salinas administration in the assassinations of a cardinal, a PRI presidential candidate and the majority leader-elect of the lower house of Congress has seemed to freeze the investigations.
Although Zedillo seeks to avoid further rifts in an already fractured PRI, his reluctance to punish criminality among the well-connected has serious implications for both Mexico and the United States. Just consider what it means for the Tijuana Cartel, which dominates narcotics delivery routes to California. The cartel is allegedly run by the Arellano Felix brothers, two of whom stand accused of leading the hit team that murdered Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas in Guadalajara. Yet, though repeatedly seen in public in Tijuana since federal warrants were issued for their arrest, no serious effort has been made to apprehend the brothers.