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Mexico's Last Line of Defense

February 25, 1997

In trying to deal effectively with drug traffickers in Mexico, President Ernesto Zedillo has few options. He could keep relying on the infamously corrupt federal police or he could try his luck placing selected army officials specially trained in narcotics interdiction at critical posts on the U.S.-Mexico frontier.

Zedillo opted for the military. He has appointed military men to the top three drug interdiction jobs in the two Baja peninsula states and is expected to do so in Sonora. It wasn't an easy decision after the blow caused by last week's scandal involving a top general who was fired for allegedly protecting drug traffickers. But in the end, there was no choice, for the army continues to be less tainted with corruption than the civilian security forces.

Last year alone, eight senior law enforcement officials were assassinated in Baja; the nationwide list of casualties just keeps on growing. Some of those killed were targeted after being betrayed by their own corrupt colleagues who were on the drug lords' payrolls.

In December 1995, Zedillo ordered Mexico's secretary of defense, Enrique Cervantes, to implement a pilot program in the state of Chihuahua in which the military substituted for the civilian authorities in anti-drug operations. The experiment lasted for 10 months and was deemed a success.

To counter the corrupting influence of drug money, Zedillo is counting on the only military institution trained to defend Mexico from its enemies. But if the army fails its president and commander in chief this time, the whole country will suffer. Drug trafficking, as Zedillo has often and correctly stated, is Mexico's biggest national security threat. And it now appears that the Mexican army is the nation's last line of defense in the continuing war on narcotics.

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