YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West

U.S. Fears Escalation of Mexico's Drug Violence

Narcotics: Officials need to retaliate strongly for recent killings to keep strife from reaching Colombian levels, U.S. authorities say.


SAN DIEGO — The slaying of a top Mexican federal police commander assigned to take on the Tijuana narcotics cartel has raised U.S. concerns that drug violence in Mexico could begin to ascend to the heights of Colombia, where traffickers targeted any civil authorities who challenged them, senior U.S. officials said.

The killing of Ernesto Ibarra Santes with three others in Mexico City on Sept. 14 was the sixth gangland-style slaying this year of law enforcement officials who had worked with the Baja California federal attorney general's delegation.

Ibarra, who had vowed to bring in Tijuana's reputed narcotics kingpins, the Arellano Felix brothers, was killed after just 28 days as Baja California federal police commander.

"This is right in your face. You cannot turn your cheek on this legitimate challenge to authority," a senior U.S. law enforcement official said. "If the Mexicans don't answer this with a full retaliatory response, then we may well be witnessing the spiral into the Colombianization of Mexican politics. The requirement to locate and apprehend the Arellanos--and their henchmen--is very crucial at this juncture."

He said U.S. law enforcement officials would be willing to assist Mexican authorities "in any way."

"This is a defining moment for Mexican law enforcement," the source said. "The need for a response to the Arellanos and their allies dictates this be taken for the grave matter that it is."

U.S. anti-drug officials believe that 70% of the cocaine that reaches the United States is shipped through Mexico, as well as a significant amount of the heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana that supplies U.S. consumers.

The presence of the Arellanos so close to San Diego--where they are said to recruit gang members for violence and even visit occasionally--makes their apprehension even more urgent, he said.

"Unlike Colombia, the Mexicans have the ability to carry the violence across the border," he said. "We can't tolerate a region where these gangsters operate freely. Cross-border violence is not a negligible risk."

Ibarra's killing came after he vowed to purge the Baja California federal police of corrupt agents. In an interview with The Times two days before he died, he said the crooked police "weren't just friends of the traffickers, they were their servants."

U.S. officials and law enforcement agents say the killings of men like Ibarra are paralyzing Mexican police as effectively as corruption.

"This is what happens to people who do their jobs now, and it will keep happening until Mexico does something about it," another ranking federal official said. Like other U.S. officials interviewed for this article, he refused to be quoted by name, citing the delicate balance of cooperation between authorities on both sides of the border.

"The intimidation factor is very personally unsettling," said a U.S. official familiar with Mexican anti-narcotics operations. "The rule of law has become conspicuous in its absence."

U.S. and Mexican officials say Ibarra's killers must have had detailed information on his itinerary, indicating that corrupt federal police may have been involved. In a Sept. 17 interview, Mexican Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano Gracia said he did not rule that out.

"The way he was picked off was pretty clear. He wasn't exactly publishing his travel plans," a U.S. official said.

About $50,000 was reportedly found in a suitcase in the trunk of the cab Ibarra took, according to Hector Villareal, spokesman for the attorney general's office in Mexico City. Lozano Gracia said he had not rejected the possibility that someone had planted the cash to call Ibarra's integrity into question.

"We are talking about an official who risked, and finally gave his life, who was truly valiant, who confronted delinquency and the Arellano Felix organization," Lozano Gracia added.

U.S. law enforcement officials had worked with Ibarra since he was put on a 30-member anti-narcotics task force in Mexico City, before his assignment in Baja California, and they vehemently rejected any suggestions that he too had been compromised.

"This guy was straight. He was a true believer. He was on a mission of virtue and personal vengeance," the U.S. law enforcement official said. "An honest law enforcement officer should be cherished. Anything else is a disservice to his memory."

A top U.S. law enforcement agent added that Ibarra "was someone we really thought we could really work with." The three Arellano Felix brothers--Benjamin, Javier and Ramon--are among Mexico's most notorious fugitives. They are named in drug trafficking cases and in connection with the 1993 slaying of a Mexican cardinal in Guadalajara, but U.S. agents suspect that their organization is responsible for other high-profile killings in the last three years.

"There is still time to do something. They're still not killing judges or bombing buildings," said a U.S. federal agent. "If Mexico doesn't do something, they're going to be faced with what happened in Italy with the Mafia, or Colombia with the cartels."

Los Angeles Times Articles