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California and the West

Mexican President Reaffirms War on Crime

Reform: In a visit to Tijuana, home of one of Mexico's worst drug cartels, Vicente Fox urges citizens to join his campaign. U.S. officials are encouraged.

February 01, 2001|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA — Mexican President Vicente Fox on Wednesday carried his newly declared war on crime to the border, home to a drug cartel that is one of the most sophisticated and meanest in the country.

A day after announcing the creation of an anti-corruption commission, Fox called on ordinary Mexicans to join his crusade and announced a program aimed at encouraging residents to report crime. The new measures include providing greater disclosure of how reported crimes are handled and making crime statistics public.

Fox said corruption and neglect had eroded public trust in the justice system, leaving Mexicans "frustrated and indignant." Many crimes go unreported because residents have little confidence that anything will come of their complaints. Fox said an overhaul of the nation's law enforcement system and greater openness will give citizens more clout over their police and prosecutors.

"The federal government will play its part--in economic resources, in infrastructure, in training programs and, above all, in the political will to promote a culture of legality," Fox told a gathering of about 500 civic activists and public officials from across Baja California. "It is necessary that the public also play its part."

A Fox aide said the administration hoped to win accountability through periodic checks of its crime strategy. "We're going to come back every three, six months and constantly be in touch with the population and see where we are having success, where we are having problems, and correcting our strategies and modifying them," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Fox's national security advisor.

Aides took issue with news reports in Mexican newspapers suggesting that Fox had vowed to capture the leaders of the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug gang by June. But they said the president would oversee an offensive aimed at uprooting the notorious gang and other crime organizations.

Fox's visit to the U.S. border, his second since taking office in December, was part of his fledgling administration's effort to spotlight Mexican crime syndicates and the corruption that has aided them over the years.

Normally wary U.S. authorities sounded uncharacteristically upbeat about Fox's determination to battle crime groups since taking power from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

"He seems like a guy who'll be true to his word," said Vince Rice, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego. "We're really encouraged. You've got to give the guy time."

Last week, Fox went to the Pacific state of Sinaloa, a hub for the narcotics trade, to pledge a "war without mercy against the pernicious criminal mafias."

That announcement came five days after reputed drug chieftain Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman escaped from a maximum security prison, apparently by bribing officials. Fox has vowed to crack down on prison corruption.

A week earlier, Fox dispatched 700 federal police agents to Tijuana as part of a sweep for leaders of the feared Arellano Felix cartel based here. Fox has said he will train and deploy as many as 2,000 agents during the next six months in a push to eradicate the drug gang, which is led by fugitive brothers sought on both sides of the border.

U.S. officials have been impressed that Fox has targeted drug traffickers--not traditionally a front-burner issue in Mexican politics--so early in his term. President Bush travels to Mexico to meet with Fox on Feb. 16.

"To come out with guns blazing and targeting the Arellanos in the first six months creates a lot of expectations. It's the most difficult task you could have directed yourself to," said federal prosecutor Gonzalo Curiel, who heads the narcotics enforcement section of the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego. "It seems to underline his sincerity."

But the federal police sweep in Tijuana was a fresh reminder that splashy offensives don't guarantee results. It has yielded no arrests so far of Ramon and Benjamin Arellano Felix. The brothers, each the subject of a $2-million reward offer in the United States, are thought by U.S. officials to be operating in Baja California. Mexican authorities suggest that they have fled the country.

Fox plans to overhaul Mexican law enforcement, but for now must make do with a system sodden by long-term corruption. It is a structure in which police officers have been paid to protect crime bosses and even Mexico's former anti-drug chief landed in jail on suspicion of working with traffickers. U.S. agents trust few of their Mexican counterparts.

Yet there have been signs of change. Among the most promising, say U.S. officials, is a ruling by Mexico's Supreme Court that appears to clear the way for the extradition of several key Mexican inmates wanted in the United States on drug charges. Mexico's traditional reluctance to extradite nationals charged in the United States has long been a source of tension between the two nations.

Among those covered by the recent court ruling is Everardo Arturo "Kitty" Paez, a Tijuana resident accused by U.S. authorities of serving as an Arellano lieutenant. The extradition of Paez, charged in a federal indictment in San Diego, is seen by U.S. officials as a test of Mexico's willingness to cooperate in the war on drugs. There are a few remaining legal issues to resolve in the Paez case before that can happen, U.S. officials said.

U.S. authorities also praise Fox's decision to name Alejandro Gertz Manero to head a new federal public security office. As former police chief in Mexico City, Gertz won a reputation as a reformer with little tolerance for corrupt officers. The appointment "sends a strong message that corrupt law enforcement officials will be dealt with swiftly," said Gregory A. Vega, the U.S. attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties.

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