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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Jorge Madrazo Cuellar

Defending Mexico's Will to Fight Drugs and Corruption

March 09, 1997|Sergio Munoz | Sergio Munoz is an editorial writer for The Times

MEXICO CITY — When Jorge Madrazo Cuellar was asked to serve as Mexico's attorney general, he knew he would face many problems. He just didn't realize how many, and how deep, those problems would be.

Slightly more than three months into the job, the 43-year-old former law professor and Mexico's first human-rights ombudsman is engaged in a task that has been called the country's most intractable: attempting to dismantle a conglomerate of international drug cartels that use Mexico as the spring board for distributing illegal drugs in the United States.

To succeed, Madrazo will need much courage, for he has entered an environment in which it is not always easy to distinguish friend from foe. In addition, Madrazo's position has become an international hot seat: He must deal with the United States at a time when drug trafficking in Mexico has become a domestic U.S. issue. His job is to convince a skeptical U.S. Congress that Mexico has made progress in the war against illegal drugs. Yet, the more Madrazo tries to accommodate Washington's demands, the more Mexican public opinion, as reflected in a highly nationalistic press, is convinced that the nation's sovereignty has been deeded to Washington.

This is not all. Shock and horror have taken up residence in America's southern neighbor. Mexicans are accustomed to their country's unresolved guerrilla war in Chiapas and other states, its perpetual economic crisis and the eternal political shake-ups. But what Madrazo now confronts is new and almost fantastical: a torrent of rumors that threatens to ruin the reputations of so many in the Mexican establishment.

For example, the attorney general has to deal with an amazing soap opera, the central characters of which include a former president's brother whose bank accounts in Switzerland could feed thousands of impoverished Mexicans for a lifetime and who is now under arrest, accused of masterminding a murder; the former national anti-drug czar, jailed for taking bribes from the cartels; a former leading prosecutor now on the lam, and a psychic hired by a this former prosecutor to find a missing body that could have implicated the former president's brother, and who instead unearthed a corpse that turned out to be her own in-law.

Madrazo was interviewed in his office at the headquarters of the Procuraduria General de Justicia de la Republica Mexicana, on the second floor of a modern building that resembles a bunker. He works at the opposite end of the city from his beloved National Autonomous University of Mexico.

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Question: After the recent drug-related scandals in Mexico, there are people in the U.S. who say Mexico is not a nation of laws. How would you answer them?

Answer: Mexico is a country of laws--even though we do have our problems making law prevail. We have problems with impunity and with corruption. But we don't hide our problems; we face them and want to solve them.

Q: How would you describe the mood of the country after these weeks filled with scandal and Mexico-bashing in the U.S.? Is the anti-American feeling growing here?

A: The process of certification does not help in any way to fight against drug trafficking. It is a unilateral statement in a bilateral relationship that becomes a recrimination. Passing judgment on the country hurts both the authorities and the people. Instead, cooperation that does not infringe upon the country's sovereignty should be promoted. Having said that, I should also say we do admit we have serious problems we must fix.

Q: We'll come back to those problems, but could you first answer some of the accusations Sen. Dianne Feinstein has raised against Mexico? For example, she asserts, 'there has been little or no effective action taken against the major drug cartels."

A: I believe Sen. Feinstein is wrong. We have arrested and jailed important heads of all the drug cartels. As a matter of fact, we've just arrested Oscar Malherbe the heir of Juan Garcia Abrego's cartel, and at least seven important members of the Tijuana cartel. Two of them are held in jail in San Diego and the rest are in a Mexico City jail.

Q: Feinstein also complains that those arrested, such as Hector Palma, are given light sentences.

A: She is referring to a six-year sentence a judge in the state of Jalisco gave him under one judicial proceeding. We have appealed that sentence. But I should add that she does not mention there are several other criminal proceedings against him for other illicit activities, including homicide, in the states of Sonora, Sinaloa and Mexico. So this story won't end there. We expect him to remain in jail for many more years to come.

Q: And her comments about the criminal money-laundering laws in Mexico being incomplete? She implies Mexico is an important center for money laundering. Is that true?

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