Pubdate: Tue, 21 Mar 2006
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2006 San Jose Mercury News
Author: Jay Root, Knight Ridder
Bookmark: (Corruption - Outside U.S.)


Killings Escalate As Drug Cartels Fight For Control, Despite Mexico's 
Attempts To Root Out Corruption

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico - The general who'd been in charge of Mexico's 
efforts to quell drug violence on the border with the United States 
hasn't been seen by officials here in weeks, and the program is in disarray.

Drug killings are on the rise, local news outlets have been cowed 
into silence, and evidence is mounting that members of two warring 
drug-trafficking cartels have infiltrated the program's elite anti-drug forces.

U.S. officials are concerned that the violence is crossing the 
border: Assaults on U.S. Border Patrol agents are up 108 percent this 
year, according to recent congressional testimony.

New program kicks off

Mexican officials, recognizing that the 9-month-old Secure Mexico 
program had failed, announced a new program last week, dubbed 
Northern Border. Under the program, 600 to 800 more federal police 
agents were dispatched to this besieged border city.

But few expect that to make much difference, and drug traffickers 
aren't intimidated. After the announcement of the new initiative, 
they gunned down four federal police intelligence agents in broad 
daylight outside a school. At least 30 shots were fired into the 
agents' bodies.

Adding to the confusion is the absence of Gen. Alvaro Moreno Moreno, 
who'd been in charge of Secure Mexico. Nuevo Laredo city officials 
and a Mexican diplomat on the U.S. side of the border said they'd had 
no contact with the general in weeks.

"I couldn't tell you where he is," said Eloy Caloca, a spokesman in 
Mexico City for the federal Ministry of Public Security, the agency 
to which Moreno reports. Asked who's in charge in Nuevo Laredo now, 
Caloca said: "I don't have his name right now."

The deaths of the four agents brought the number of killings blamed 
on drug traffickers in this city this year to 50 in less than three 
months, a rate that outpaces last year's, when about 170 people total 
died in drug violence.

Statements by Ruben Aguilar, a spokesman for President Vicente Fox, 
suggest that efforts to get rid of corrupt city police officers have 
failed. He said preliminary evidence indicated that the hit men who 
killed the four agents were municipal police aligned with one of the cartels.

Experts see no end to the killings as long as the two cartels battle 
to control the distribution routes that lead into the United States.

"It won't be resolved until this war is over, until one of the 
cartels wins," said Jorge Chabat, an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations 
and border security. "It's clear that the federal government doesn't 
have the capacity to stop this wave of violence," he said, referring to Mexico.

Mexico's federal authorities launched Secure Mexico last year after 
Nuevo Laredo's police chief, Alejandro Dominguez, was gunned down by 
suspected traffickers only hours after he took the job.

The Secure Mexico program was designed to weed out local police 
corruption and place all levels of law enforcement under the command 
of a single military official: Gen. Moreno.

Media attacked

But the violence has become only more virulent, often spectacularly 
so: Suspected drug gang members used a hand grenade to attack a 
newspaper newsroom in the city last month.

The Mexican government's new initiative is supposed to re-establish 
order. Authorities announced that they were sending up to 800 more 
agents from Federal Preventative Police, known by its Spanish acronym 
PFP. There already were hundreds here, but estimates vary wildly on 
the total number patrolling now.

Few are optimistic. "Last year, there were over 170-something 
murders. I don't think anyone was charged or has been arrested in 
connection with those murders, and the majority of those were 
drug-related," said a U.S. official involved in drug enforcement who 
was granted anonymity because his agency doesn't allow him to speak 
publicly. "They've had the military employed at different occasions 
during those spates of murder, and they've continued to happen."

Presumed traffickers increasingly have targeted the local news media. 
In February, armed assailants riddled El Manana newspaper with 
bullets and dropped a grenade on the floor on their way out. Reporter 
Jaime Orozco was injured in the attack and may never walk again, his 
colleagues say.

Last week, a radio reporter was killed, leading many news outlets to 
either quit reporting stories on the murderous chaos or provide 
abbreviated accounts with no bylines, tucked deep inside the paper. 
Several journalists refused to be quoted for this story, even 
anonymously, for fear of reprisals.

Police forces infiltrated

Meanwhile, Mexican media reports and public statements have raised 
questions about whether the PFP forces sent to restore order under 
Secure Mexico have been infiltrated by elements of the drug cartels.

Public Security Secretary Eduardo Medina Mora acknowledged during a 
December news conference that there were PFP agents -- he wouldn't 
say how many -- who'd been involved in organized criminal activity, 
acts that he said were "totally intolerable" and under investigation.

In Nuevo Laredo, questions center on a Feb. 2 shootout in which armed 
bandits, in broad daylight near the police headquarters, attacked a 
marked PFP vehicle that was carrying a suspect, U.S. citizen Javier 
Escalera. The American was later handed over to U.S. authorities.

News accounts said two PFP agents were wounded. But since then, 
doubts have been raised about whether one of the wounded men was 
really a PFP agent. Photos show him wounded, dressed in a PFP uniform.

But the man in the photos, identified as Mario Humberto Rodriguez 
Castillo, later fled Nuevo Laredo by bus toward the northern Mexico 
city of Monterrey. Along the way, he was attacked and shot again by 
armed assailants, according to Rafael Luque, a spokesman for the 
state of Tamaulipas. He survived, but his whereabouts aren't known.

Daniel Hernandez, Mexico's consul general in Laredo, said it's not 
unusual for law enforcement agencies to protect the identity and 
whereabouts of an agent who might be involved in intelligence. He 
also noted that corruption can be found on both sides of the border, 
citing the recent indictment of two U.S. Border Patrol agents who are 
accused of taking $300,000 in bribes from smugglers to release 
immigrants from detention.

The violence has become a problem for Nuevo Laredo's businesses, said 
Jack Suneson, owner of upscale Marti's jewelry and crafts store in 
Nuevo Laredo. Noting that many businesses have relocated to the U.S. 
side of the border, Suneson said he might have to shut his doors 
after five decades of operation.

"No more promises. I want them to safeguard our city," Suneson said. 
"I don't know how much longer we can hold out. This is the third year 
we've taken a nose dive."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom