Reporting from Mexico City — Locked in a grueling and bloody war with drug cartels, Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Thursday replaced the nation's top legal official, whose lackluster stint had failed to improve paltry narcotics conviction rates or stem human rights abuses.
Atty. Gen. Arturo Chavez Chavez stepped down after 18 months on the job. Calderon nominated Marisela Morales, head of the high-profile organized crime unit of the prosecutor's office, to replace Chavez. The Mexican Senate must ratify the appointment.
Chavez's departure comes at a time of soaring violence in the drug war that has claimed more than 35,000 lives since Calderon launched the offensive in December 2006. A poll this week showed that a slight majority of Mexicans believe the cartels have the advantage in the war as impunity goes unchecked. Despite thousands of arrests of suspected traffickers, only a fraction are prosecuted and convicted.
The removal of Chavez, however, is not likely to portend significant changes in Calderon's strategy, analysts said.
Chavez became attorney general under a cloud of controversy. He was seen by many Mexicans as a bland technocrat whose main qualification seemed to be his loyalty to Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN. Human rights activists were especially incensed because of Chavez's perceived failure to adequately investigate a rash of killings of women when he was top state prosecutor in Chihuahua in the 1990s.
In a secret 2009 diplomatic cable disclosed this year by WikiLeaks, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual described Calderon's decision to name Chavez attorney general as "totally unexpected and politically inexplicable."
Along with other senior federal law enforcement authorities, Chavez's office badly bungled a case that was intended to show the government's willingness to go after politicians who protect drug traffickers. With great fanfare, more than 30 mayors, police chiefs and other officials were arrested in 2009 in Michoacan state and accused of collaborating with the notorious La Familia drug gang.
Although Chavez inherited the case from his predecessor, his office failed to make the charges stick. The case collapsed last year — what Chavez later acknowledged was a "much talked-about setback."
He also may have been harmed by ongoing revelations that U.S. officials allowed weapons to be smuggled to known traffickers as part of a federal operation to track down kingpins. Chavez repeatedly avoided appearing before the Mexican Congress to testify about what he knew about the program.
Calderon, in a public appearance announcing that he had accepted Chavez's resignation, credited the outgoing attorney general with the capture of several top drug lords and the confiscation of weapons, illicit properties and drug profits. He said Chavez was key in toughening laws against kidnapping, a booming crime in Mexico.
Chavez had replaced Eduardo Medina Mora, one of the most seasoned politicians from Calderon's party but one who clashed repeatedly with powerful public security chief Genaro Garcia Luna and who eventually lost the confidence of U.S. officials.
Those same officials, in another secret diplomatic cable, noted that Chavez was seen as a "less capable political operator" than Medina Mora and predicted that Chavez "will be overshadowed by Garcia Luna and stymied by his considerable human rights baggage."
Morales, if confirmed, would be the first woman to serve in the post. She wins high marks from U.S. officials, and last month received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award in a ceremony in Washington headed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama. But Morales too was tainted in the botched Michoacan case, and some of the senators who must approve her appointment may hold that against her.