Pubdate: Fri, 23 Nov 2001
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post


Two recent killings mark a violent escalation in the nation's war against 
organized drug crime.

MAZATLAN, Mexico - The three couples were on their way to a baseball game 
on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month. Jose Manuel de Alba and two other 
federal judges were looking forward to a break from their heavy workload. 
They stood chatting in front of de Alba's bungalow, waiting for his wife, 
when a red Chevrolet pulled up. Out stepped a man who leveled an AK-47 
assault rifle and sprayed them with at least 40 bullets.

In seconds, two judges and the wife of one lay dead.

De Alba escaped by running into his garden. A few days later, at his desk 
in a federal office building, armed bodyguards stood outside his door and 
he pondered how violent drug traffickers who have bloodied so much of 
Mexico have changed him forever.

"Until now, I hadn't thought about the danger, but now I am afraid," de 
Alba, 46, said. He said he would no longer ride his mountain bike to work 
along the palm-lined streets of this breezy Pacific beach town in Sinaloa 
state. "I have to be like a bullfighter controlling my fear," he said, his 
hands trembling. "I have to have the courage to overcome this and to try to 
serve society. Because if we let violence, not laws, govern us, then my 
security doesn't mean anything."

The killing of two federal judges is a dramatic escalation in Mexico's war 
with organized crime, which had left the judicial branch largely untouched 
while claiming police officers, informants, and some prominent political 
figures. No killer has been publicly identified in the judges' slayings, 
nor is one likely to be. The recent murder of a prominent human-rights 
lawyer in Mexico City is also unsolved, as is the attempted slaying last 
week of a lawyer in the city of Monterrey who had represented key witnesses 
against a major drug cartel.

The shootings, and the impunity surrounding them, have added to Mexicans' 
anxiety about security. They also challenge the effectiveness of President 
Vicente Fox's promised "war without mercy" against organized crime. 
Authorities say it is almost certain that organized-crime gangs were behind 
the judges' killings.

"The message to judges is perfectly clear," said Jose Lavanderos, a Mexico 
City lawyer who serves on a municipal board that oversees the conduct of 
judges. "It says: 'Here we are. We have more power than you. We can destroy 
you whenever we want to.' "

Genaro Gongora Pimental, president of the Supreme Court, has called for 
police guards for all judges in the federal judiciary, which handles 
virtually all drug and major organized-crime cases. He called the killings 
a "crime against the state" and urged Fox to investigate aggressively.

"It seems to me that we wouldn't be sending any message of strength if we 
say, 'This can be done and nothing will happen,' " Gongora said in an 
interview published Sunday in Proceso magazine. "We would be opening the 
door to the forces of crime."

Sinaloa Gov. Juan Millan this week ordered police protection for all 24 
federal judges in this state. "These types of political killings could once 
only happen in places like Colombia, but now they are happening in Mexico," 
Millan said.

Since Fox came to power one year ago, there have been many high- profile 
drug arrests. U.S. law-enforcement officials said they were encouraged by 
noticeably better coordination and cooperation with the Mexicans. They say 
Mexican officials, who in the past have turned out to be secretly on the 
drug traffickers' payroll, now appear to be making a genuinely tougher 
effort against the cartels.

Some believe the drug-related violence seen now is a response to a 
government crackdown. They say one reason judges had not been targeted by 
drug traffickers very often in the past is that they frequently were bought 
off. In a state where drug lords coldly offer public officials "silver or 
lead" - take a bribe or take a bullet - judges have tended to take the money.

Raul Mejia, a law professor at the Autonomous Technical Institute of 
Mexico, said he believed the killings resulted from the government's 
struggle against the impunity often enjoyed by Mexican criminals. He said 
violence was a "clear sign of decomposition" of the previous relationship 
between organized crime and corrupt officials.

Jorge Fernandez, of the Institute for Judicial Studies in Mexico City, 
which helps train judges, said it was too soon to know why the judges were 
killed. He said he could not remember the last time a judge was murdered, 
and it was not clear why drug traffickers would change their long-standing 
policy of not killing judges. Fernandez said that unlike in Colombia, where 
drug gangs kill judges as a method of doing business, Mexico's powerful 
criminals have usually found it easier to pay to avoid prosecution.

"Organized crime's greatest penetration has been among police and 
politicians," Fernandez said. "In Mexico, there are ways to evade justice 
that don't necessarily need a judge's decision."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens