Mexican Tale of Absolute Drug Corruption

Mexican Tale of Absolute Drug Corruption
Posted by FoM on January 09, 2000 at 09:08:43 PT
By Tim Golden
Source: New York Times
Norma Castro felt almost as if she were part of a new country 10 years ago, when her home state of Baja California led Mexico into a new era by voting out the corrupt political machine that had dominated its politics for six decades. 
"We thought things were going to change for real," Mrs. Castro, a homemaker, recalled. "We thought that if we gave them a chance -- another government, another party -- maybe they would do something about all this." Despite a decade of reform-minded opposition government, the waves of drug-related crime that have coincided with more democratic politics are eroding the faith of Mrs. Castro and her neighbors that any government can improve their lives. "People don't believe anymore," Mrs. Castro said, describing how the lines at her neighborhood polling place have grown shorter each year. "They figure, 'What's the point of voting if nothing is going to change?' " After years in which Mexicans held to the belief that drugs like cocaine were a problem that merely passed through their country on their way to places like Los Angeles and New York, the illicit trade here has begun to profoundly affect people's lives. Street crime, fed by an explosion of drug abuse, has risen exponentially. With the police overwhelmed by drug-related killings and the courts awash in traffickers' bribes, crimes almost unheard of not long ago -- kidnappings, bank robberies, drive-by shootings -- are commonplace. For people without the means to hire lawyers or bribe judges, justice has grown steadily more elusive as the system has buckled. Corrupt police officers are fired by the score; illegal gun ownership and private security businesses are booming just the same. Polls that once showed citizens concerned with street lights and sewer lines now register public safety far ahead of all other concerns. At the same time, voter participation rates at record highs in the early 1990's have quickly given way to some of the highest abstention levels in the country. "The main source of support for the opposition was its promise to fight crime and corruption, and people no longer believe in that," said José Luis Pérez Canchola, a leftist politician who was Baja California's first independent human rights ombudsman. "There is a cost to the democracy in that disillusionment. People don't think anyone can solve their problems." It has been an article of reformist faith in Mexico that free political choice would be the ultimate solution to corruption and injustice. With the end of fraudulent elections and authoritarian rule, the thinking went, leaders would be accountable to the voters rather than to the system of patronage and payoffs built by the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party. But here in Baja California, things have not gone according to that plan. While public administration has generally improved under the opposition National Action Party, violence, crime and corruption have redrawn the political agenda. National Action officials who once promised results now move "emergency" police trailers from one neighborhood to another, cutting ceremonial ribbons each time, but never leaving the units in place long enough to make a difference. Like the former Communists of Eastern Europe, some local leaders of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (known by its Spanish initials as the PRI) have all but embraced its authoritarian past, hoping for a comeback by harking back to days when the criminals with whom they colluded were at least under some control. The impact of trafficking is disproportionate in Baja California. The state has long been a conduit into the United States for cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin; it is also the base of the Arellano Félix brothers' mafia, arguably the most violent Mexico has known. The confluence of democratic politics and the drug trade, two of the defining forces of contemporary Mexico, has also posed a conflict that bears special attention as the country readies for the most competitive presidential election of its modern history, which is to take place this summer. Like the politicians of Baja California and a few other crime-ravaged states governed by the opposition, the major presidential candidates all cite the collapsing justice system as a crucial issue. They have said little, however, to sustain faith in the power of free political choice. "Everyone knows now that the government cannot stop the criminals here," said Armando Gutiérrez, a Tijuana radio announcer whose son, Hodín, a crusading state prosecutor, was killed by gunmen thought to be working for the traffickers. "You just wish that they would come clean -- say they are afraid or they are taking payoffs or they don't know what to do," Mr. Gutiérrez went on. "They tried to pretend this wasn't happening, and when they finally looked around, it was too late. The criminals were on top of them." The Leaders: Success in Theory, Failure in Practice: When the National Action Party swept into the statehouse in 1989, it appeared that the young businessman who became governor, Ernesto Ruffo, could not have chosen an easier act to follow. The last PRI governor had been forced to resign by his own party as a series of corruption scandals came to light. In the drug underworld, Baja California had been a province in the empire of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, a former policeman whose ability to befriend officials made him the country's most powerful trafficker. By the time he was arrested in 1989, though, the state was becoming a haven for his much more confrontational second cousins, the six Arellano Félix brothers. In one of several interviews, Mr. Ruffo recalled thinking that the solution to the state's corruption problem would be a straightforward matter of devising systems in which it could not survive. Since criminal suspects could have their court files "lost" for a small fee, the new government installed computers and told prosecutors to store their records there. Within weeks, the network was besieged by mysterious hackers and power outages; records vanished just the same. The new state government did not shy from firing more notorious officers of the state police, who often took jobs in other forces or with the traffickers themselves. The problem it had was replacing them. "The thing was," recalled one former state police official, "there were no prosecutors who came from the PAN. There were no comandantes from the PAN. 'Ruffo's police' were the same ones who had been there before."(PAN is the Spanish acronym for National Action Party.) Nor was the problem necessarily solved by new recruits. As recently as this spring, almost a third of the entering class at the state police academy were found to have lied on their applications, officials acknowledged. "You have to be very careful whom you choose and how you train them," one senior police official said, without irony. "Each one is a potential criminal." In the early 1990's, as the Arellanos began to solidify their control of the Tijuana underworld, state officials had little understanding that Mexico's biggest traffickers were growing significantly richer and more defiant. Successful American interdiction efforts in the Caribbean were forcing as much as three-fourths of the cocaine flow through Mexico. Its smugglers, who had usually been paid in cash to transport drugs for South American producers, began taking their cut in kind. As the Mexicans expanded their own wholesale business in the United States, their earnings shot up dramatically, and bribes they paid Mexican officials rose apace. Drug mafias had in the past generally secured government tolerance by dealing in part with senior officials or their emissaries. With fewer leaders now willing to take their money, former officials said, traffickers focused on key positions throughout the criminal-justice apparatus: the district court, the attorney general's security detail, the state police homicide squad (to cover up killings), and the car-theft unit (to supply stolen cars). In some cases, according to Mexican officials and two Mexican intelligence reports, the Arellanos made long-term alliances with up-and-coming officials, helping advance them. Not everyone was bought off, officials said, but in an atmosphere of pervasive fear, not everyone needed to be. One former state law-enforcement official, who sat in a cavernous, empty restaurant whispering about his dealings with Arellano emissaries, said it became irrelevant whether he and his colleagues took the money. Whenever they declined satchels full of cash, they were also careful to say they had no intention of getting in the traffickers' way. "The federal cops come and go from Mexico City," the former official said, "but I have to live here when the job ends. You don't have the power to really do anything, so why get yourself killed? One must not get tangled in the feet of a galloping horse." The System: Long on Water, Short on Safety Baja California never had a particularly effective criminal justice apparatus. But evidence including crime statistics and opinion polls suggests that the system began to break down more seriously after 1993, as the traffickers became more challenging. National Action officials were generally making the government administration more efficient. Water delivery was improved, electrical service extended. There was no such progress, however, when it came to the administration of justice. Local news organizations, most still in the hands of businessmen loyal to the PRI, cast Mr. Ruffo's aides as corrupt cousins of their governing-party predecessors. The governor generally blamed the federal authorities, who have jurisdiction over drug crimes, and was often slow to clean house when accusations emerged against his aides. Even when officials did resist, the prevailing sense of the traffickers' impunity was more likely to be strengthened. With small-time drug peddlers spreading across Tijuana, for instance, the city police chief, Federico Benítez, began sending officers after them. When a corrupt young federal police commander dropped by to offer him a huge monthly stipend to end the patrols, Mr. Benítez abruptly ended the meeting, former officials said. The strategy did not last. On April 24, 1994, Mr. Benítez was shot to death. The federal commander was charged with the killing but never arrested, unabashedly proclaiming his innocence to reporters. Less than two months before Mr. Benítez's death, a federal police commander who had been battling the traffickers was gunned down in Tijuana by state police officers working as Arellano bodyguards. Three weeks after that, the PRI presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated in Tijuana. The pace of drug-related killings quickened again in 1996, creating a new zone of impunity. If a body turned up bearing signs of torture or execution, officials said, even honest detectives moved on to the next case on the presumption that this one could not be solved. Former state police officials and prosecutors said that as the traffickers operated more freely, so too did other organized crime in the state: car thieves, immigrant smugglers, kidnappers, bank robbers. The proliferation of trafficking groups under Arellano lordship also increased drug distribution on the Mexican side of the border. One former state attorney general, José Luis Anaya Bautista, said the state justice system was effectively overwhelmed. "We did not have jurisdiction to investigate these crimes," he said, "but they had very serious effects on the state. The trafficking creates more and more addicts. And as the number of addicts increases, so do the burglaries, the robberies, the car thefts." In a state of more than three million, the investigative force numbered about 650 officers and staff members. "If you take away the sick guys, the old guys and the guys on vacation, that leaves you maybe 500," Mr. Anaya noted. Several officials said they guessed that 150 to 200 officers received some money from the traffickers. (Mr. Anaya was himself publicly accused of collaborating with the Arellanos by two of the traffickers' former associates. He denied the claims and was never charged, but was forced to resign in late 1997.) Although the state's crime statistics are shoddy and generally not made public, several sets obtained by a reporter suggest that virtually all major crimes began rising sharply in 1994. While an economic crisis was then fueling crime throughout Mexico, Baja California generally maintained the lowest unemployment rate in the country. In one newspaper-sponsored poll in Tijuana, 50 percent of those queried said they would not report being victimized. "If you get robbed and you make a complaint," said the head of the Chamber of Commerce, Arturo González Cruz, "you will spend six or seven hours waiting to report it. They will assign detectives, but the detectives will never show up, because nobody ever investigates anything." The Trade: More Addicts, More Killings The wider impact of the drug trade has rarely been obvious in Baja California. Cities like Tijuana and Mexicali brim with new businesses, and the worst of the fear generated by drug-related crime tends to concentrate in poor suburbs not seen by tourists. In the makeshift drug treatment centers that have popped up across the state, addicts pack into the sorts of tiny cells that might house migrant laborers or prisoners, which many of them have been. The difference is that the addicts must plead to stay. The centers are all full, said the head of one treatment network, Miguel Ángel Marroquín. "And you can ask anyone -- nobody would say that we are reaching even 1 percent of the addicts out there." Some of the clients are users of cocaine or crack, which became more widely available in Mexico as smugglers shifted to payment in kind for the drugs they transport. Social workers say more of the addicts are heroin and methamphetamine users, who have watched the price of their drugs fall even as the purity has increased. "You leave your house for the day and these kids will strip it clean," Hortensia Ortíz, a shopkeeper in the Morita neighborhood, said as a scrum of youths with shaven heads and baggy jeans passed by. Across a dirt road, two police officers were draped over plastic folding chairs in the back of a trailer that had recently been trucked into the neighborhood. A desktop computer sat unused beside them. In three weeks, the officers had yet to intercede in any crimes, people in the neighborhood said, but Mrs. Ortíz's husband was leading a petition drive to persuade the authorities to leave the trailer in place. "It's better than nothing," she and a couple of her customers explained all at once. The state governor, Alejandro González Alcocer, argued in an interview that crime had yet to seriously hurt industry or tourism, engines of the state economy that depend heavily on foreigners' comfort. But Mr. González Alcocer has had to establish a rush-hour gantlet of police protection for Japanese and American plant managers who commute from the San Diego area to maquiladoras, tax-exempt assembly plants across the border. Local business people, angered by what they see as special treatment, are lobbying for their own state prosecutor to deal with crimes against business. The crisis has been a boon to security companies. Businesses offering bodyguards, armored cars and alarm systems have flourished. In a country with strict laws against gun ownership, shopkeepers have taken to carrying revolvers in their aprons. Many Baja Californians say the corrosion of the justice system by drug corruption and violence has also strengthened the longstanding Mexican perception that justice often depends on one's ability to pay. In Tijuana, officials endorse what might be called community policing. Should neighborhoods want their own patrolling officers, all they must do is collect enough for their salaries, about $428 a month each. Without private lawyers to press their cases, victims are often bested by criminals with better counsel. And since it is no longer news when a public official is shot to death in broad daylight, ordinary victims of even the most horrific crimes must sometimes struggle for any attention at all. Verónica Ibarra was 26, a restaurant cashier making about $70 a week, when a man who had often eaten at the restaurant attacked her as she went home. She said the man raped and mutilated her and then doused her with gasoline, apparently thinking to burn her body, before leaving her for dead in a shallow grave. Ms. Ibarra's nightmare had only begun. After the suspect in her attack, José Juan Paz Díaz, was arrested two weeks later on assault charges, he posted his $1,000 bail immediately. (The next day he lunched at her old restaurant.) But with the city in the midst of a string of killings of police officials, Ms. Ibarra's attack did not make the papers. Ms. Ibarra was all but scalped in the attack, and has since undergone facial surgery 10 times. Despite the brutality of the crime, her lawyers did not bother to enter her medical reports into the court file and never sought to have Mr. Paz charged with attempted murder or rape. "It was clear that the lawyers hadn't even read the court file," said Minerva Nájera, a human rights lawyer who took over the case after hearing of it from a hardbitten crime reporter who was appalled to come upon Mr. Paz heckling Ms. Ibarra as she testified before a judge. "And the fact that the bail was so low, that the guy was released right away, are clear indications that the authorities were being paid off from the beginning." Eventually, after protests by women's groups that Ms. Nájera had rallied, Mr. Paz was sentenced to seven years. But before she completed a successful appeal, raising the sentence to 10 years, he fled Tijuana, apparently to the United States. "It is sad to say it, but there are many Verónicas," Ms. Nájera said. "There is a great deal of impunity, and even minimal amounts of money can keep men like this from facing justice." Despite bursts of outrage, the public response to the violence has been remarkably quiet. Last year Tijuana authorities began a pilot program in schools to discourage violence and build citizenship. But they appear to have a long struggle ahead. Early one recent evening at the downtown headquarters of Tijuana's Mutual Assistance Association, a member of that civic group, Jesús R. Guzmán, looked out glumly at a sea of empty folding chairs. The lecture topic of the day was "Public Safety." "I don't understand it," Mr. Guzmán said. "Just this year, just in my extended family, we have had eight cars stolen." Jesús Blancornelas, a Tijuana newspaper editor who was ambushed and nearly killed by Arellano gunmen two years ago after publishing articles about their activities, described a very limited sense of solidarity. "When a student gets killed, the students march; when a doctor gets killed, the doctors march," he said. "But that's about it. There is still a sense that people have that this really doesn't involve them." When community advocates and political analysts compare the anger expressed in polls to the apathy and cynicism reflected in local elections, they see the legacy of a one-party state. For nearly 50 years in Mexico, they note, political participation meant compulsory attendance at a PRI rally, compulsory membership in a PRI trade union or maybe pleading with a PRI official for basic services repeatedly promised. In 1992, when new voter identification cards and a registration drive by Mr. Ruffo's government helped galvanize voters in the state, the turnout for a midterm election was 81 percent. In 1998 it fell below 50 percent in a vote for mayors and legislators. Just how drug violence and crime have influenced the voters' faith in government is mostly a matter of conjecture. But scandals of drug-related crime and corruption more than anything else have likened the current political leaders to their predecessors. And nothing has left the new generation of state and city officials looking so inept as their struggles with the Arellanos. "Obviously the crime problem is influencing this process," Mr. González Alcocer said of the abstention rate. "It is a factor that is changing peoples' belief in government." Published: January 9, 2000Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company 
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Comment #1 posted by kaptinemo on January 09, 2000 at 10:21:54 PT
Take a good, long our future 
Ever wonder why so many people of Mexicano heritage are here in El Norte? The above article holds an answer - and a warning. The corruption here is nowhere near as bad as it is south of the border. But it won't be long.There is an old saying that goes, 'Treason doth never prosper. What's the reason? If treason *doth* prosper, none dare call it treason.' In other words, if your on the take, you won't upset the apple cart by calling attention to what's going on.
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