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Mexico Names Drug Czar After Vetting

March 11, 1997|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Scrambling to restore credibility to Mexico's scandal-plagued fight against narcotics, authorities on Monday named a top local prosecutor to head this country's version of the DEA--but only after subjecting him to unprecedented scrutiny, including polygraph and drug tests.

The prosecutor, Mariano Herran Salvatti, replaces a military general who was recently arrested in one of the nation's worst drug scandals. The new chief has practically no experience in drug cases, although Mexican officials apparently considered that a guarantee of his honesty.

In an effort to weed out corruption, authorities also announced that all employees of the Mexican drug agency will undergo rigorous exams of everything from their finances to their urine.

"This requirement is and will be unavoidable," Atty. Gen. Jorge Madrazo Cuellar declared.

The new anti-drug czar was named amid an uproar in the U.S. over the apparent spread of narcotics corruption to top levels of Mexico's government. On Monday, President Clinton announced a "full-court press" to dissuade U.S. legislators who are threatening to overturn his recent certification of Mexico as a drug-fighting partner.

This week's congressional vote, while largely symbolic, has raised deep-seated fears in Mexico that the powerful U.S. government could try to destabilize this country.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the appointment of the new Mexican drug chief was "highly significant" and should "convince those in Congress . . . who have any doubts that President [Ernesto] Zedillo's commitment to wage the war against narcotics is genuine."

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But feeling in Congress appears to be running strongly against Mexico, the transshipment point for an estimated 75% of the cocaine reaching the U.S.

Herran Salvatti, the 48-year-old new anti-drug czar, had been acting prosecutor for Mexico City since February and has been involved in some of the capital's top criminal cases, including the flight of a federal prosecutor, Pablo Chapa Bezanilla, who had been pursuing murder charges against Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of the former president. He also oversaw hundreds of judicial police.

Supporters praised Herran Salvatti's legal abilities and said he had helped modernize the city prosecutor's office.

But they acknowledged that the prosecutor has handled few drugs cases. Zedillo's appointment of a narcotics novice appeared to reflect his desire to choose a squeaky-clean official who wouldn't have been tempted by drug bribes.

Lest there be any doubt about that, Herran Salvatti was subjected to drug tests, a psychological exam, a financial analysis, a polygraph test and even a "visit to the home and family," Madrazo said Monday. All other employees of the drug agency--known as the National Institute to Combat Drugs--will have to undergo similar tests, he said.

Such requirements reflect deep embarrassment in the wake of the government's accusation that ousted drug chief Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo was linked to a top cocaine gang and even rented a luxury Mexico City apartment from an alleged kingpin.

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If Herran Salvatti passed the honesty test, however, his appointment was not universally acclaimed. Human rights groups criticized the Mexico City prosecutor's office as an inefficient institution that has failed to stem spiraling crime in the capital--some of it linked to police.

Selecting a leading member of the office, they said, didn't inspire confidence.

"It doesn't seem that people who haven't shown any respect for justice should be put into a job like this, at such a difficult moment for the country," said Maria Teresa Jardi, a human rights expert who previously worked on drug matters for the attorney general's office.

Atty. Gen. Madrazo vowed that the appointment of Herran Salvatti was just the first step in a "radical transformation" of his corruption-plagued office, which will include raising salaries and improving security for officials.

The appointment came as Mexico released long-awaited rules designed to combat money laundering, which U.S. officials describe as a mushrooming problem here. Mexico outlawed money laundering last year but only Monday published regulations, effective immediately, that require banks, brokerage houses and credit unions to report suspicious transactions.

Staff writer Elizabeth Shogren in Washington contributed to this report.

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