Pubdate: Wed, 18 Jul 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Author: Tim Weiner


MEXICO CITY - After five years of failure, American and Mexican officials 
fighting the war on drugs say they have created a trusted group of 
undercover Mexican investigators who are arresting long- sought suspects 
and attacking all the big drug cartels, instead of selling out to them as 
in the past.

This breakthrough in no way means that the tide has turned in the drug war, 
they acknowledge. A never-ending river of cocaine and heroin still flows 
north from Mexico to meet never-ending demand in the United States. Drug 
barons are still using their profits to try to corrupt Mexican law 
enforcement at every level.

But in the last few months, something significant has changed: with the 
creation of a 117-member Mexican organized-crime unit, which works side by 
side with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico, both 
sides say they are starting to trust each other.

"We have got counterparts down here whom we trust and with whom we can 
share sensitive information without that filtering out to the traffickers, 
and we haven't been proved wrong yet," said a senior United States law 
enforcement official in Mexico. "We have found some people in whom we have 

The creation of the new drug police unit, each member rigorously vetted by 
both nations, has meant a new way of doing business, said Joseph Keefe, the 
United States drug enforcement agency's chief of operations.

"We can sit down and freely share information with the Mexicans, they can 
share information with us, the information doesn't wind up on the street," 
he said. "They are going out and attacking drug organizations."

Jose Santiago Vasconcelos, chief of Mexico's special organized-crime unit, 
who oversees the vetted unit, as it is known, said: "Information is flowing 
on both sides, almost instantaneously. We obtain information, we 
communicate it to the Americans immediately; they obtain information, and 
they communicate immediately, and we are connecting, coordinating, on cases 
as much in the United States as much as in Mexico."

Both nations have tried without success since 1996 to form a cadre of 
trustworthy undercover Mexican investigators. The 117 Mexicans under Mr. 
Vasconcelos have been through financial audits, psychological screening and 
polygraphs. Their neighbors and families have been grilled. Their blood and 
urine have been analyzed. The screening was done by Mexican government 
officials with American help. Then they have gone to the United States for 
more tests and extensive training.

They have been working since April for Mr. Vasconcelos and his organized 
crime unit. He is the only man in Mexico empowered to run wiretaps and 
undercover operations against drug cartels.

The Americans give Mr. Vasconcelos information. He takes it to a trusted 
Mexican judge - a judge who, he hopes, will not leak details of the 
investigation to drug gangs - to win approval for wiretaps against suspects 
in Mexico. The information gleaned from bugging in Mexico can provide 
probable cause to seek more wiretaps in the United States.

That sets information flowing across the border, "and there's a real 
synergy there," said a senior United States official in Mexico. Members of 
the Mexican unit then run the cases from investigation to arrest.

They have attacked all the major drug cartels this year - "the entire 
spectrum of narcotics trafficking, making it very difficult to assert that 
this is anything other than real," said this American official.

"In years past, to the extent that the government in Mexico did anything 
against one of the major cartels, it was typically viewed as a means of 
protecting another cartel someplace." he said. The implication had been 
that "the government was lining its pockets with money from one cartel, 
while trying to curry favor with the United States or others by going after 
another one."

But now, he said, "there's a fundamental difference down here." Since 
President Vicente Fox took office in December, "there has been a 
broad-based offensive against all of the cartels."

This year, the unit has helped arrest a former governor, Mario Villanueva, 
and a drug cartel operator, Alcides Ramon Magana, jointly accused of 
conspiring to ship more than $2 billion worth of cocaine to the United States.

Mr. Villanueva had been slipping in and out of Mexico since his term ended 
in 1999. But in May he was detected in Cancun. He was tracked for eight 
days, until officials had dotted every i and crossed every t for his arrest 
and potential extradition to the United States, Mexican and American 
officials said.

"We worked side by side, we had live sources on Villanueva's comings and 
goings, and we seized the right moment," Mr. Vasconcelos said.

Mr. Magana, a former federal police officer, had been in plain view, off 
and on, for close to four years. American agents had given their Mexican 
counterparts his home addresses, telephone numbers and safe-house 
locations, officials said. But nothing happened until June, when Mexican 
agents cornered him.

This year ships hauling more than 50 tons of cocaine off the Pacific coast 
have been seized, officials said, and large drug smuggling and money 
laundering rings that reached from the Canadian border to Colombia have 
been at least temporarily destroyed.

The arrest roster also includes three senior military officers, several 
drug cartel lieutenants, and a Tijuana cartel enforcer charged with 
shooting a Roman Catholic cardinal in 1993. After Mexico's Supreme Court 
approved extradition of drug suspects, four suspected major traffickers 
were sent to the United States for trial.

Mr. Vasconcelos said the underlying trust in his new vetted unit "comes 
from a new openness" between the Americans and Mexicans. "We've created it 
among ourselves and it's generating confidence," he said. "And at last we 
understand we have a common enemy" - instead of fighting one another.

The history of the drug war in Mexico suggests that tactical government 
victories are fleeting. The cartels have billions of dollars to buy off 
officials. They feed a seemingly insatiable demand with "ever-increasing 
supplies, delivered by ever-more sophisticated means," said Michael 
Massing, a longtime analyst of the drug war and author of "The Fix" 
(University of California Press, 2000).

"Can it make a difference?" he said, referring to the new unit. "I'd be 
surprised if these changes lead to a substantial decrease in drugs going to 
the U.S. or a decrease in the violence and power of the cartels."

The Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico is essentially an 
intelligence service. Its agents cannot carry guns or make arrests. It 
gathers and analyzes information and hopes that its Mexican counterparts 
will act on it.

If it cannot pass on information with confidence, in its view, nothing good 
will happen - and many bad things could, like the collapse of 
investigations or the death of colleagues.

Its officials say they do not want to paint too rosy a picture.

Only two years ago, Thomas Constantine, then the director of the Drug 
Enforcement Administration, said Mexican drug enforcement was corrupt and 
incompetent. And its previous attempts to form a trusted cadre of Mexican 
officers also began with enthusiasm, but failed miserably.

"There is little effective law enforcement leading to the arrest of major 
traffickers in Mexico," he said. "Investigations have been compromised," 
usually when drug traffickers bought information from corrupt Mexican 
agents. His depressing and largely undisputed assessment meant that the 
drug war, from the Americans' standpoint, was a losing battle and perhaps a 
lost cause.

 From 1996 onward, the drug agency, the F.B.I, the United States military 
and the C.I.A. have tried forming vetted units. Between 1997 and 1999, the 
American drug agency alone spent $4.5 million on training, equipment and 
lie-detector tests for Mexican agents and prosecutors.

Seventy passed the test. Shortly after they were mobilized, the unit 
collapsed - corruption in the ranks, Mr. Constantine said.

That left the number of trusted Mexican drug agents, and therefore the 
effectiveness of counternarcotics operations in Mexico, at "zero - or less 
than zero," said Mr. Keefe, the agency's operations chief.

Part of the problem was the "massive ignorance and arrogance" of United 
States officials, said Barry R. McCaffrey, the retired Army general who 
served as the American antidrug chief for five years. He cited his own 
public assessment of his Mexican counterpart in the war on drugs, Gen. 
Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, as "a guy of absolute unquestioned integrity."

General Gutierrez was trusted with highly secret information by White 
House, Drug Enforcement Administration and intelligence officials. 
Presumably, every bit of it ended up in the hands of the traffickers.

He was arrested in February 1997 and convicted of working for a major 
Mexican drug trafficker.

A predecessor, Mario Ruiz Massieu, Mexico's drug policy chief in 1993 and 
1994, killed himself in 1999 rather than stand trial in Texas on drug and 
money laundering charges.

The moral, said General McCaffrey, was, "Watch your step - honest men die 
in Mexico," while the corrupted thrive.

But the real lesson, said Mr. Fox's national security adviser, Adolfo 
Aguilar Zinser, is that the nations have to work harder to establish 
trusted units.

"President Fox convinced President Bush to try this" when they met at Mr. 
Fox's ranch on Feb. 16, Mr. Aguilar Zinser said.

A senior American official in Mexico said the two men had issued "orders 
from on high to make this thing work."

Mr. Keefe said: "We're certainly sharing a lot more intelligence than we 
were a year or two ago. We're sharing it sooner. This is what's new - the 
straightforwardness of it. And it's been successful. So far."
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