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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Mexico prosecutors say evidence lacking against military officers

The case charging six officers, including four generals, with colluding with the Beltran Leyva drug cartel, was filed by the previous administration, headed by President Felipe Calderon.

January 23, 2013|By Richard Fausset and Cecilia Sanchez, Los Angeles Times
  • Enrique Pena Nieto, left, receives the presidential sash from Jesus Murillo Karam, president of the lower house, during the presidential inauguration ceremony Dec. 1 in Mexico City. Murillo Karam is now Mexico's attorney general.
Enrique Pena Nieto, left, receives the presidential sash from Jesus Murillo… (Alexandre Meneghini, Associated…)

MEXICO CITY — The case against six Mexican military officers accused of colluding with the Beltran Leyva drug cartel may be falling apart as federal prosecutors under new President Enrique Peña Nieto have reportedly admitted they lack sufficient evidence to back up the government's allegations.

The prosecutors' statement to a federal judge presiding over the criminal case was included in court documents obtained by the newspaper Reforma and published Tuesday. A representative of the Mexican attorney general's office would not comment.

The case against the six officers, who remain in custody, has been one of the most high-profile military-related corruption scandals in the country since 1997, when the nation's then-drug czar, Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested, and later convicted, on charges that he protected a leader of the Juarez cartel.

In the current case, the active and retired officers, including four generals, are accused of protecting the Sinaloa-based Beltran Leyva gang by allowing drug planes to shuttle cocaine through airports in Mexico City and Cancun.

The allegations are at least partially based on testimony from witnesses who are in protective custody, identified in court documents as Jennifer and Mateo, the latter a code name for Sergio "El Grande" Villarreal, a former cartel member who has been extradited to the United States, according to Mexican news reports.

The charges against the officers were filed last year by the government of President Felipe Calderon, a member of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN. Calderon deployed troops six years ago, soon after he took office, to help fight the powerful drug cartels, but the move came at a heavy price to the military's reputation, with human rights groups accusing soldiers of extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture.

Shortly after Peña Nieto, of the rival Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was sworn in as president Dec. 1, his new attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, offered a thinly veiled critique of the preceding government's reliance on testimony from witnesses the prosecution was protecting. The new administration would gather stronger evidence in addition to witness statements, Murillo Karam said.

The lack of faith in the case appears to be part of the PRI's overall rethinking of a justice system that has been marked by inefficiency and corruption. But the PRI had a history of cutting deals with drug traffickers during a quasi-authoritarian reign that lasted for seven decades. If the officers are freed, there is sure to be some speculation, on the conspiracy-minded streets of Mexico, about deals cut and unsavory factions placated.

Much of the conversation thus far, however, has centered on criticism of the Calderon administration, namely that its prosecutors built a flimsy case.

The Calderon administration brought the charges against the generals as candidate Peña Nieto was leading in the polls. One of the generals, Tomas Angeles Dauahare, was being discussed as a possible member of Peña Nieto's Cabinet at the time, and some commentators wondered whether Calderon was trying to harm Peña Nieto and help his own party's struggling candidate.

"The question now," said John M. Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University and a critic of the PRI, "is whether [the new administration's handling of the case] actually means there's going to be a new standard of proof in the new government."

richard.fausset@latimes.com

Sanchez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City bureau.

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