MEXICO CITY — Two senior army generals were jailed Thursday on drug trafficking charges, in one of the biggest public scandals to hit Mexico's secretive military in decades, officials announced.
"This is an important breakthrough. It establishes a precedent," said Roderic A. Camp, a political scientist at Claremont College near Los Angeles and an expert on Mexico's military.
At the urging of the U.S., Mexico's military has taken an increasingly prominent role in the fight against drugs in recent years, as shipments of U.S.-bound cocaine have soared. But critics have warned that the military could face the same corruption that has crippled this country's police forces. The arrests appeared to underscore that problem.
The Defense Ministry announced Thursday night that retired Division Gen. Francisco Quiroz Hermosillo and Brig. Gen. Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro have been jailed on drug charges.
It was only the second time that senior military officials have been detained for suspected narcotics trafficking. The first incident, the 1997 arrest and, later, conviction of Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, Mexico's top anti-drug enforcer, provoked shock in this nation and among U.S. officials, who were appalled to find that corruption had reached the highest levels of the government.
Quiroz Hermosillo and Acosta Chaparro were not as well known publicly as the anti-drug czar. But they were among the most senior officials in the military. Acosta Chaparro was a legend in the war against Mexico's small left-wing guerrilla bands in the 1970s. Quiroz Hermosillo was a three-star division general--the highest army rank--and was director-general of a key department, military transportation, until 1998.
"Nobody of that rank has been publicly arrested [on narcotics charges] with the exception of the drug czar. And that was a very quick, sudden case, which received a lot of attention. This is something more fundamental," Camp said.
"It gets at what a number of us have recognized is corruption at the highest ranks of the military--about which no one has ever done anything."
The military prosecutor, Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha, told reporters that more military officials could be involved, prompting speculation that the scandal could widen.
In its two-page communique issued Thursday, the Defense Ministry said an investigation of the two generals began in 1998, when participants in the country's fledgling witness-protection program implicated the pair in testimony to Justice Ministry investigators.
Those witnesses are linked to the Juarez cartel, whose leader, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, died after plastic surgery in July 1997.
The Defense Ministry, which prosecutes officers in its own military courts, decided only recently to charge the two generals, after further evidence had been gathered, including some from a witness provided by the U.S. government, the statement said. A military judge issued the arrest warrant for the generals Wednesday, accusing them of helping drug traffickers and belonging to a criminal group, the communique said. Quiroz Hermosillo was also slapped with a bribery charge.
The generals were arrested Thursday and sent to a military prison in Mexico City, according to the statement.
The communique provided no further details of the arrests or of the men's careers, and no military officials were available Thursday evening to give information.
The Mexican military has been exceptional in coup-prone Latin America for keeping its distance from politics. But in exchange for the neutrality of the armed forces, the government has largely let the military run and regulate itself.
In the past, senior military officials notorious for corruption were allowed to quietly resign, rather than face criminal charges. When arrests were made, they were rarely revealed to the public. In December 1998, when the Mexico City daily Reforma reported that Quiroz Hermosillo and Acosta Chaparro were under investigation, military officials stoutly denied the report.
But the military is undergoing changes. Since July's elections, in which the Institutional Revolutionary Party lost the presidency for the first time in 71 years, a public debate has begun on the role of the armed forces.
Advisors to the president-elect, Vicente Fox of the center-right National Action Party, have angered the military by saying they want to reduce its role in anti-drug operations.
The arrests announced Thursday signal that things are changing, Camp said. "Top military officials are not going to be immune to civil law and civil authorities," he said.