Reporting from Mexico City and Morelia, Mexico — When 35 mayors, prosecutors, police chiefs and other officials in the state of Michoacan were hauled into jail and accused of taking bribes from a cartel last year, it looked as if the federal government was finally attacking the political collusion that has long nurtured the drug gangs.
But instead of heralding a bold new front in Mexican President Felipe Calderon's 4-year-old drug war, the case has turned out to be an embarrassing example of how that offensive is failing.
More than a year later, the prosecution is in ruins.
Judges ruled that the evidence was too flimsy, and all but one of the suspects has been freed. Many have returned to their old jobs, accusing the government of a politically motivated witch hunt during an election season.
The high-profile collapse underscores fundamental defects in the Mexican criminal justice system, including the country's ministerios publicos, a combination detective and prosecutor. These officials are poorly paid, frequently lack professional training and have been known to throw cases in exchange for bribes or to escape possible retribution.
"This is the weak link of the Mexican criminal justice system," said John Mill Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and editor in chief of the Mexican Law Review. "If the ministerio publico doesn't do its job right — even if you have an honest judge — you're not going to be able to convict."
An examination of the sealed case file shows that prosecutors relied on circumstantial evidence that didn't hold up under judicial scrutiny and on three anonymous paid informants whose testimony consisted largely of hearsay.
Court files in criminal cases in Mexico, unlike in the United States, are not public. The Times obtained the file from participants in the case, opening a rare window onto the workings of the Mexican judiciary.
Some suspects were accused of accepting tens of thousands of dollars a month from La Familia, the dominant cartel in Michoacan, according to the court filings. But there was no sign that investigators found or even looked for proof in the accused officials' financial holdings or telephone records.
In affidavits, Mexican federal police described stakeouts in which they watched alleged drug figures hand suitcases and envelopes to people the officers said they believed to be corrupt officials. But investigators were not sure of the identities of the recipients, and the file contains no evidence that they ever determined what was in the bundles. The accused officials denied they were at such meetings.
The disintegration of the case has added to skepticism among Mexicans already mistrustful of the justice system. The Calderon government's suggestion that judges acted improperly won't do much for public confidence either.
"If even a case with so much resonance and so much attention can't end in conviction," political analyst Alfonso Zarate asked, "what can we expect from the rest of the cases that don't claim as much attention?"
La Familia, one of Mexico's newest drug cartels, has grown steadily in ruthless power and influence in Michoacan, Calderon's picturesque home state.
Unlike other criminal organizations, La Familia has deep roots in society, projects a cult-like aura and sees itself as a political player. It has penetrated city halls and police departments while maintaining tight control over methamphetamine labs and vast marijuana fields.
It had long been an open secret that numerous Michoacan officials took money to facilitate La Familia's operations or turn a blind eye. The arrests last year stunned many who thought so-called narcopoliticos were untouchable.
Ignacio Mendoza, then deputy state prosecutor for Michoacan, was on vacation in Las Vegas with his wife and friends when Mexican soldiers and federal police swept into the state May 26, 2009, in a surprise roundup. When he got word that he was among those wanted, Mendoza went home the next day and turned himself in.
He says he assumed he would give a statement and be done. Instead, he was bundled off to a row of small cells where he found his boss, state prosecutor Miguel Garcia Hurtado, and a who's who of Michoacan's political and law enforcement elite.
The indictment accused Mendoza of accepting $20,000 a month to provide La Familia with protection and to inform its henchmen about pending military operations, information to which Mendoza says he did not have access.
In an affidavit, four federal agents said they watched from a neighboring table as Mendoza and a police commander met in a Sanborn's restaurant in the state capital, Morelia, with an alleged La Familia leader known as "El Tio," or "Uncle." At the end of a 15-minute meeting, the alleged drug boss handed over a black suitcase. Its contents were not revealed, and it was not clear from the court documents examined by The Times whether any photographs were taken.
Mendoza insists the meeting never happened.