Pubdate: Mon, 11 Jun 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Author: Tim Weiner


MEXICO CITY -  Millions of Americans know the Mexican resort of Cancún as a 
pleasure dome promising cheap tequila and hot spring breaks, where English 
is widely spoken, dollars gladly taken and the hamburgers taste like home.

But behind that facade, one of the world's biggest drug rings, a 
multibillion-dollar Mexican enterprise, single-handedly imported roughly 15 
percent of all cocaine to reach the United States in the late 1990's, 
Mexican and American officials say. They surmise that the drug traffickers 
laundered some of their profits through beachfront resorts and businesses, 
and that drug money helped finance some tourist sites — in short, that 
cocaine helped build Cancún.

At the hub of this rich enterprise, they say, stood Mario Villanueva, the 
governor of the state of Quintana Roo from 1993 to 1999, who is likely to 
become the highest-ranking Latin American politician to face cocaine 
charges in a United States court since the arrest of Gen. Manuel Noriega, 
the dictator of Panama, in 1989.

While he governed, Mr. Villanueva was the king of Cancún. But when he was 
arrested there two weeks ago after two years on the run, he was frightened 
and bedraggled. "Help me!" he shouted as the police pushed him onto a plane 
bound for prison.

The five-page federal indictment against him, unsealed in New York the next 
day, says he helped smuggle 200 tons of cocaine to the United States — a 
quantity worth more than $2 billion wholesale, perhaps 10 times that much 
on the street. Investigators here say the indictment will be superseded by 
a longer set of charges, closely detailing how Cancún became one of the 
more crooked places in Mexico.

While the case as it stands is a work in progress, and the former governor 
the lone defendant, it speaks volumes about the corruption of a city and a 

Mr. Villanueva, now in a maximum-security lockup outside Mexico City, was 
accused by federal prosecutors last Wednesday of making a series of 
intimidating telephone calls from prison. Under a new agreement between the 
United States and Mexico, he will probably be tried in New York on charges 
that could lead to a life sentence. "If he is extraditable," President 
Vicente Fox said, "he will be extradited."

By his own admission, Mr. Villanueva took big payoffs from businessmen who 
helped develop Cancún and Mexico's Caribbean coast. But he has always 
denied the cocaine trafficking and organized crime charges lodged against 
him in Mexico. He has not had the opportunity to answer the indictment in 
New York.

The authorities say he also took $500,000 for every major cocaine shipment 
that passed through his state in the mid-1990's, and that his corruption 
reached down to the lowliest patrolman in Cancún.

Part of the continuing investigation seeks to trace that money. One branch 
of the trail, investigators in Mexico say, leads to accounts controlled by 
Mr. Villanueva in the United States, Panama and elsewhere, totaling tens of 
millions of dollars. Another, they say, leads to some of the fancier resort 
properties of Cancún in which they suspect Mr. Villanueva was a silent partner.

Officials in both countries call his arrest a new chapter in multinational 
law enforcement, "the result of unprecedented cooperation between U.S. and 
Mexican authorities," said the United States attorney in Manhattan, Mary Jo 

In an investigation that took more than five years, where the first big 
break came on the streets of the Bronx, agents of the United States Drug 
Enforcement Administration overcame deep mistrust and shared at least three 
of their principal witnesses with Mexican officials. The Mexican 
investigators paid them back with their "genuine desire" to get Mr. 
Villanueva, said a senior law- enforcement official in Mexico City.

"This case is far from over," the official said. "This case will break wide 
open again. What we have is an historical conspiracy that can be attested 
to by a number of cooperating witnesses" — at least 17, some who can place 
the former governor at the heart of Cancún's cocaine cartel.

Under Mr. Villanueva, Colombian cocaine, as much as 15 tons a month, moved 
freely through airports, highways, marinas and moonlit beaches en route 
from Mexico to the United States, according to investigators from both 
nations. Arriving in jet aircraft and 400-horsepower speedboats, then 
loaded onto light planes and trailer-trucks, and shipped to the United 
States border, it wound up in the streets and suburbs of New York, 
Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio and Los 
Angeles, the investigators say.

They say the shipments to and from Mexico were overseen and protected by 
Ramón Alcides Magaña, who as a federal police officer took a $3 million 
bribe to provide information to leaders of the cocaine trade. Once retired 
from the force, they say, he ran cocaine smuggling in Cancún, peeling off a 
multimillion- dollar payroll to platoons of active- duty and recently 
retired police and military officers.

But the ultimate protector, they say, was the governor himself. The 
investigation into Mr. Villanueva and his associates, which began back in 
1995, took root in February 1997, as D.E.A. agents watched two shipments of 
cocaine make their way from Quintana Roo to New York.

The drugs arrived in what the agents call "controlled shipments," which 
they deliberately allowed to be imported, and then tracked to trap the 
traffickers. They arrested three Mexicans with 107 kilograms of the cocaine 
— about 236 pounds — in the Bronx and another with 1,630 kilos outside the 
Holiday Inn in Middletown, N.Y.

A New York City detective working with the D.E.A. filed a federal criminal 
complaint against the four. But their arrests were never publicized. All 
four, now unindicted co- conspirators in the case, testified before grand 

They helped open a window onto Mr. Villanueva's state. So did protected 
witnesses interrogated by Mexican and American investigators at Mexican 
consulates in the United States. Another crucial informer was Gilberto 
Salinas-Doria, once a policeman in the little town of Donna, Tex., who 
shipped tons of cocaine arriving from Cancún across the border into the 
United States.

All that testimony led to a series of raids and arrests in 1998 and 1999. 
Mexican police seized cocaine and cocaine-financed condominiums, yachts, 
businesses, cars and restaurants in and near Cancún.

One raid, at a suspected drug trafficker's residence, turned up a faxed 
copy of the criminal complaint filed by the New York detective, showing 
that the traffickers were watching the investigators watching them.

As hundreds of pounds of cocaine turned up in tractor-trailers and 
warehouses throughout his state, Governor Villanueva denied any involvement 
at all. American investigators find it significant that the most popular 
route for Colombian cocaine shifted from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific 
Ocean after he left office and disappeared.

American drug agents stationed at Quintana Roo's border with the 
neighboring country of Belize saw him crossing back in a compact car late 
last month. There were clear signs that he wanted to surrender. "He is 
about to turn himself in," a Mexican deputy attorney general, María de la 
Luz Lima, had announced three weeks earlier.

The arrest, with cameras blazing, may well have been staged. But it was 
good theater, said a law-enforcement official in Mexico City. He said one 
of the officers who arrested Mr. Villanueva told him: "Like the final scene 
in a movie, his final act was to look around at the high-rises of Cancún 
and say: `Just think, this used to belong to me.' "
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