Pubdate: Sat, 9 Aug 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Mexico Under Siege


Sergio Aponte Polito Is Relieved of Duty in Baja California and Sonora
States. He Has Won Public Praise for His Effectiveness but Also
Criticism From Officials for His Accusations Against Them.

ENSENADA -- In Mexico's drug war, Gen. Sergio Aponte Polito racked up
crime-fighting credentials worthy of the Dark Knight, making record
seizures of drugs and weapons and forcing out top Baja California law
enforcement officials he accused of corruption and of having links to
organized crime.

But in a surprise move Thursday, the general was relieved of his
command, abruptly ending his controversial 20-month stint as the
leader of President Felipe Calderon's army-led battle against
organized crime in the northern states of Baja California and Sonora.

Aponte policed a region that serves as a major drug-trafficking
corridor for some of Mexico's most powerful criminal groups, including
Tijuana's notorious Arellano Felix cartel. The more than 3,000 troops
under his command arrested 1,388 suspects and seized 539 tons of
marijuana, 4 tons of cocaine and 1,583 weapons.

The stout, salt-and-pepper-haired general, who broke secretive
military tradition by becoming an outspoken public figure who relished
the media spotlight, left the military base in Mexicali on Thursday
night, but not without first thanking adoring residents through calls
to local newspapers.

The office of the secretary of defense said in a news release that
Aponte's removal was part of a regular rotation of generals and
officers nationwide. He is to become president of the Supreme Military
Tribunal in Mexico City.

But critics and supporters said the general's ouster probably was
related to his increasingly contentious behavior.

Aponte won broad public support for aggressive tactics against drug
gangs whose turf wars have left hundreds dead here, but he generated
controversy by denouncing scores of police officers, prosecutors and
officials by name in blistering letters published in newspapers across
the state.

With such an aggressive general benched, some critics questioned
Calderon's commitment to the drug war, saying he appeared to be
sending a signal that his get-tough campaign against traffickers,
which has included deploying 40,000 troops to several states, stops
short of attacking entrenched government corruption.

Aponte took aim at the culture of impunity enjoyed for years by Baja
California leaders with Calderon's conservative National Action Party,
who many say were complicit in the rise of the drug cartels.

"What he did was enormously valuable," said Victor Clark Alfaro,
director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights. "The people
supported him. The only ones who didn't were organized crime and
officials in state government."

But Aponte's critics say he was his own worst enemy, done in by his
big ego and reckless accusations, many leveled without evidence. His
ouster was unfortunate, but necessary to preserve basic democratic
rights, some observers said.

"When citizens are desperate for security, they will often trade their
liberties and due process," said David Shirk, director of the
Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, "and in the end
may create a monster that is as dangerous as the other threat they are
concerned about."

Regardless of whether he is hero or demagogue, the general's departure
deals at least a temporary blow to Mexico's offensive against cartels,
experts and U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials said. U.S.
agencies viewed the general as a strong ally in the drug war.

"He was very responsive and cooperative," said a U.S. law enforcement
official who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to
speak to the news media. "He was instrumental in fighting the
narco-trafficking groups, kidnapping rings and arms smugglers."

Aponte's aggressive tactics didn't stop with criminal groups. His
first letter in April accused Tijuana's anti-kidnapping chief, among
others, of running a kidnapping ring. He also said a former deputy
attorney general had been protecting organized crime groups.

The letter sent shock waves through state government. Many of the more
than 50 accused officials quit or fled, in shame or guilt. A few
fought back, only to back down under withering public pressure, and
despite fear that the general's accusations were snaring innocent people.

In the following months, Aponte emerged as a Gen. George Patton-like
figure, full of bravado marred by prima donna behavior. He once
complained that state officials showed disrespect by seating him
behind a partition at a public event.

He took offense when the generally fawning news media reported that he
got choked up during a speech at City Hall. His emotional moment, he
wrote in his second letter, came at having to see his troops standing
in formation next to corrupt local and state police.

An elusive public figure, Aponte lived in a park-like oasis hidden
behind the high walls of the military base in Mexicali. His daily
whereabouts was a closely guarded secret. When he traveled, a convoy
of Hummers bristling with 50-caliber weapons led the way.

As his popularity grew, people started referring to him affectionately
as "Mi General." Many wanted him to run for attorney general, and a
famous band said it was going to write a traditional ballad, or
corrido, about him.

The series of events that culminated in his removal apparently began
three weeks ago at an upscale Brazilian restaurant in Mexicali, where
someone in his entourage got into a dispute with a band over a song
and someone fired a shot over the salad bar.

Early media reports cited rumors that the general may have fired the
shot, but the director of the state police, who also is a major in the
Mexican army, eventually admitted guilt and was forced to resign.

Aponte's second missive, a rambling 23-page letter published Sunday,
accused state officials of a conspiracy to embarrass him.

"It appeared I was put in front of the inquisition, and left to be
burned at the stake or sent to the firing squad," says a rough
translation of Aponte's letter.

Baja California Gov. Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan denied asking for his
departure, as did other top political leaders. But privately, many
state leaders were glad to show the general the door.

"It's sad, because he won the trust and confidence of the people,"
said one state official who declined to be identified for fear of
retaliation. "But then he abused their trust and the media's favorable
coverage by attacking many innocent people."