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A Blatant Attack on Justice in Mexico

Crime: Judges' slayings are seen as the most open defiance yet of Fox's effort to impose the rule of law. They underscore the challenge he faces.

November 30, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAZATLAN, Mexico — The luxurious, heavily patrolled El Cid townhouse complex in this Pacific Ocean port city has become an unlikely front line in Mexico's battle against drug trafficking and organized crime.

Inside the gated community in the early evening of Nov. 11, men wielding AK-47 assault rifles gunned down two federal judges and the wife of one of the magistrates. The killings--and the failure to solve them--underscore the challenges confronting President Vicente Fox as he pursues one of the defining goals of his administration: imposing the rule of law.

The slayings, believed to be the first of Mexican federal judges, are seen as the most open defiance yet of Fox's avowed war against the impunity that has allowed organized crime to mushroom.

Fox took office last Dec. 1 as the first opposition president after 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. He staked his campaign on the promise to make the law work and to attack the crime, corruption and impunity that marked the PRI's reign.

Although he is responsible for some advances, Fox has been besieged lately by an array of high-profile crimes that call into question the rule of law. These include the unsolved slaying in October of Digna Ochoa, a human rights lawyer, and the discovery in November of the corpses of eight young women in a field near Ciudad Juarez along the border with Texas.

On the plus side, Fox's law enforcement team has won praise for reforms to the organized crime unit and the federal investigative police, Mexico's FBI. Authorities also have arrested several high-level drug lords.

But although the gunmen have not been identified, the killings here of Judges Benito Andrade Ibarra, Jesus Alberto Ayala and Andrade's wife, Maria del Carmen, are being widely interpreted as organized crime's answer to the president's campaign for law and order.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Genaro Gongora Pimental called the slayings "crimes against the state," adding that "they cannot and must not remain unsolved. The society, for its own security, cannot tolerate that such events occur against those who work to ensure justice. To accept or tolerate it would be to put at risk the society itself."

Mazatlan is in northwestern Mexico's Sinaloa state, which produced three of the country's five largest drug syndicates--and then exported two of them, to Tijuana in Baja California and Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua state. Repeated skirmishes among the cartels have produced hundreds of deaths each year--usually in the form of "settling accounts" within the illicit industry--but they have no effect on the flourishing tourism trade here.

Still, the slayings of two judges add a frightening dimension to the battle against organized crime.

Sinaloa Gov. Juan S. Millan, who steadily brought down the murder rate in each of his first two years in office, said that in this, his third year, the figure will return to the 560 statewide slayings reported in 1999.

He said the rise in killings is a response to Fox's declaration of war against such powerful crime organizations as the Arellano Felix brothers, Sinaloa natives who run their operation from Tijuana. Though Millan lauded Fox's bravura, he said federal authorities have failed to give police and prosecutors enough muscle to carry out the war.

The brazen killings of the judges "is a very worrying signal that the traffickers in criminal organizations now feel so strong or so secure that they no longer fear the reaction that the government, the society and the media should have in the face of a crime like this," Millan said. "This for me is the most worrying. It is an open challenge to the power of the state."

Millan said the central government needs to share legal power and resources with the 31 state governments to combat drug trafficking, which, as a federal offense, is handled by federal officials. "If they don't coordinate with us and they don't do their job, we are going to keep adding more failures."

A step taken by the Supreme Court against traffickers could have provoked the judges' killings. In January, the high court upheld in principle the extradition of suspected traffickers to the U.S. Since then, a number of high-profile cartel leaders have challenged their extradition in federal court appeals, which are being heard by judges.

The citizens of Mazatlan are so fed up with the state, federal and even municipal governments that on the day the two judges were killed, the city of 600,000 elected as mayor a populist radio announcer from a fringe political party.

Carlos Arenas, a lawyer who heads one of the city's legal associations, noted that the judges were among 35 people slain in Sinaloa over a recent 12-day period.

Arenas said he received a telephoned death threat two months ago, adding that "the authorities don't like us to say the truth about what is wrong."

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