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Mexico Fights Drug War on Its Own Terms

March 26, 1998|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Fernando Gastelum, a top security official in the state of Baja California Sur, was invited to lunch recently at a local military base. Little did he know that he was to be the main course.

As Gastelum sat down with other officials to discuss crime, an aide informed him that he had a phone call. Heading out of the dining room, he was seized by black-clad federal agents. Within hours, he was in detention in Mexico City.

The Mexican attorney general's office charges that Gastelum organized a notorious 1995 shipment of cocaine--10 tons packed into a passenger jet that was met and unloaded by police in Baja California Sur. Gastelum says he is innocent.

To Mexican authorities, his detention last month is a key example of the skirmishes they are waging and winning in the war on drugs.

But if Mexico claims it is winning more and more battles, critics in the United States say the country is losing the war. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and other lawmakers are seeking to strip Mexico's annual certification as a full partner in fighting drug trafficking, a step that would chill relations between the neighbors. The U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote on the measure today, although it is not expected to pass.

Who is right? To some extent, both sides are. Even skeptics praise the integrity of top Mexican anti-drug officials. But analysts say their victories pale before the size of the problem--a multibillion-dollar drug trade that supplies more than half the cocaine entering the United States.

The Mexican officials face odds that are often more daunting than those confronting anti-drug authorities in Los Angeles or New York. They must contend with widespread corruption, fragile institutions and traffickers who have billions of dollars at their disposal--thanks to U.S. drug users.

In addition, Mexican anti-drug officials must deal with a problem rarely acknowledged by authorities here or in the United States: There is little public support in Mexico for a high-profile fight against traffickers.

"There is nothing driving the government to wage a war on drugs," political scientist Jorge Castaneda said, noting the low level of drug use in Mexico. Opinion polls routinely indicate that the trafficking problem is a low priority for Mexicans, far outweighed by such issues as common crime and unemployment.

"There's no consensus in Mexico on this," Castaneda said. "You can't wage a war without consensus. It doesn't happen. It didn't happen in the U.S. [with] Vietnam. Why do countries lose wars? Because their people don't want to fight them."

Seeing Progress, but Big Obstacles Remain

Mexican officials say they have made progress despite the difficulties. In the past year, authorities have arrested several important members of the powerful Tijuana cartel. Its reputed leaders--the Arellano Felix brothers--are apparently lying low because of the pressure. The government also believes its pursuit of top trafficker Amado Carrillo Fuentes drove him to undergo extensive plastic surgery in July that cost him his life.

Meanwhile, a new law has resulted in 19 criminal cases against alleged money launderers. And a program to thoroughly vet the national anti-drug police force is bearing fruit: Nearly 900 members have passed the battery of background checks and drug tests, and 1,000 officers suspected of corruption have been fired.

"We're beginning to see the first results, and we'll consolidate them little by little," said Mariano Herran Salvatti, who became Mexico's anti-drug czar a year ago. "There is going to be a drop in the amount of drugs passing through [Mexico]."

But authorities face huge obstacles. Drug corruption has turned police and officials into well-paid allies of the traffickers. One trafficker alone--Carrillo Fuentes--is believed to have spent more on bribes per year than the entire budget of the Mexican Justice Department, which this year is $425 million.

Jesus Blancornelas would seem an unlikely fan of the government's performance against drug traffickers. In November, the editor of a muckraking news weekly was attacked by gunmen allegedly working for the Arellano Felix brothers, just days after the state government suddenly withdrew his bodyguards. His car was riddled with 100 bullets, and he was seriously wounded.

Still, Blancornelas said federal authorities, in close cooperation with U.S. officials, are making progress against traffickers in Tijuana. The problem, he said, is that the federal police and army are sometimes frustrated by the very people who should be their allies--local authorities.

"The [federal prosecutor's office] is working well in Tijuana," he said. "But there's corruption in the state prosecutor's office."

How Deep Does the Corruption Run?

Mexican officials say they are trying to expose corrupt local officials, and point to the Gastelum case as one example of progress. Gastelum is being held for questioning but has not been charged.

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