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A War of Rising Casualties

Mexico, with U.S. aid, must press on despite loss of drug agents

September 24, 1996

The continuing killings of Mexico's federal narcotics agents illustrate dramatically the lethal dimensions of the drug war being waged there. As Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano and his ever fewer honest and dedicated agents mobilize their forces against the infamous Arellano brothers' cartel in Tijuana, they need, and should receive, support from the top in Mexico City and from the United States too. This war is, after all, fueled by the multibillion-dollar drug market north of the border.

The last four victims died last weekend in a Mexico City suburb. They had been tortured and strangled. The primary victim was Jorge Garcia Vargas, who in January was appointed Tijuana director of the Institute for the Combat of Drugs, the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. His murder represents the seventh slaying this year of a Mexican officer investigating drug traffic in Baja California. Garcia Vargas' three bodyguards died with him. The killers' use of torture suggested they were seeking information, probably on an investigation. Garcia Vargas had been pursuing leads against the Arellano family, kingpins of the Baja California trafficking cartel.

A week earlier, Baja's federal police commander, Ernesto Ibarra Santes, along with two bodyguards and a taxi driver, was machine-gunned in Mexico City. In that case too the killers' identities are unknown. The perpetrators were sufficiently informed to know when Ibarra would be arriving at the Mexico City airport. Circumstances suggest there are factions within the police, and burrowed into some circles of government, that work for the drug lords.

Atty. Gen. Lozano is aware of the corruptive effect of money on law officers. To diminish it, he has implemented a complicated rotation system that moves agents from one station to another after a relatively short tenure, before they are either bribed or killed, depending on their loyalties. In mid-August, he shocked the country by sacking 737 allegedly crooked federal agents. The response was not long in coming. A few days later, the prosecutor who handled narcotics cases in Tijuana was shot at his home, presumably by allies of one of the dismissed agents.

Immediate positive results in this war should not be expected. Mexico's struggle against drugs has been underway for decades. Undoubtedly it will take years more to bring the problem under control. In the meantime, President Ernesto Zedillo, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and U.S. anti-drug czar Barry McCaffrey should continue to support Lozano's courageous battle, which is being fought for both countries and with increasing casualties.

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