Pubdate: Sun, 4 Jul 2010
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front Page, continued on page A12
Copyright: 2010 Los Angeles Times
Author: Tracy Wilkinson, Reporting from Culiacan, Mexico; Ken 
Ellingwood, Reporting from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico



Narcotic Traffickers' Tentacles Are Sinking Deeper into Mexico's 
Power Structure

Fifteen years ago, Sinaloa state's moneyed elite wouldn't give Jesus 
Vizcarra the time of day. His murky past and reputed personal ties to 
major drug traffickers kept him out of the top social clubs and 
business associations.

Today the same power brokers who once shunned him are Vizcarra's 
enthusiastic backers as he emerges as the solid favorite to become 
governor of the key state.

To critics, Vizcarra's election on Sunday would be the culmination of 
a steady penetration by narcotics traffickers into Mexican political 
power. Vizcarra, backed by the omnipotent Institutional Revolutionary 
Party, or PRI, counters that he has done nothing wrong, and he has 
not been charged with any crime. But he has refused to answer pointed 
questions about his past, nor has he been able to explain away 
compromising evidence and a fast-amassed fortune.

Sunday's elections, which are taking place in 14 states, have 
highlighted the corrosive influence drug gangs and their money have 
on Mexican politics and races for important offices.

Deep infiltration (and intimidation) of the political class by 
organized crime has hamstrung the government of President Felipe 
Calderon in its nationwide campaign to battle powerful drug cartels, 
an offensive now in its fourth violent year. With rare exception, 
authorities have left corrupt politicians untouched and failed to 
adequately monitor dirty money in election campaigns.

Last week, assassins killed Tamaulipas state gubernatorial candidate 
Rodolfo Torre in a highway ambush, the highest-ranking candidate 
slain since a presidential hopeful in 1994. Usually, however, the 
damage is more subtle, yet insidiously effective.

"Narco-politics is the greatest threat to Mexico's incipient 
democracy," said federal congressman Manuel Clouthier Carrillo, who 
represents Sinaloa for the National Action Party, or PAN. "If federal 
authorities don't fight it now, the damage will be irreversible."

In Sinaloa, drug tycoons like Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada channel 
millions of untraceable dollars into the hands of politicians who 
then use the cash not only to line their own pockets but to pay for 
vote-garnering public works projects and buy elections, according to 
politicians, law enforcement sources and experts in drug trafficking. 
In return, Zambada and his compatriots can be assured that local and 
state police and other agencies are at their disposal.

Sinaloa is the most entrenched example of narco-politics, and the 
phenomenon is spreading across Mexico.

In Ciudad Juarez, where fighting among drug gangs has converted the 
city into Mexico's deadliest, the leading candidate for mayor is 
fending off allegations of ties to traffickers.

The candidate, Hector Murguia of the PRI, who served as mayor from 
2004 to 2007, has faced questions over what he knew of the activities 
of his police director, who in 2008 was arrested and convicted in 
Texas on drug smuggling and bribery charges.

Murguia, in an interview with The Times, strenuously denied any 
relations to traffickers and said he had "no idea" whether the former 
police commander, Saulo Reyes, was involved in illicit activities 
before leaving office. But a senior American law enforcement official 
told The Times that the PRI candidate has attracted U.S. scrutiny 
because of his alleged past cooperation with the Juarez cartel.

Murguia's main rival, Cesar Jauregui of the PAN, says Murguia has 
drug ties and cannot be trusted to ensure public safety in a city 
where rival traffickers are engaged in open warfare. Murguia 
dismisses Jauregui as a "loudmouth" and says he will sue for 
defamation after the election.

In neither Ciudad Juarez nor in Sinaloa do such allegations seem to 
hurt the candidates.

"People don't look at the ethical or moral origins [of a candidate] 
but at the services they can receive," said Lauro Melendrez, owner of 
a chain of pharmacies and one of numerous prominent Sinaloa 
businessmen supporting Vizcarra. "We don't have the luxury to demand 
pie-in-the-sky ethical values. A society in crisis is less demanding."

Fertile Sinaloa is largely controlled by interconnected 
entrepreneurs, politicians and marijuana and cocaine traffickers, 
tied together by family relations and business dealings - a Mafioso 
cabal, in the words of Clouthier. They bought huge tracts of land, 
built fancy housing projects, and diversified into cattle and 
purebred horses. Some even set up charitable foundations. Many have 
kept their hands clean by using intermediaries, and thanks to 
exclusively cash transactions, there is little paper trail.

Vizcarra came from a poor rural family, one of 10 children to a 
father who sold chickens for a living, in the heart of the isolated 
Golden Triangle, a drug smugglers' paradise along the Sierra Madre.

Vizcarra's mother has acknowledged - and birth documents made 
available to The Times show - that they are related to Ines Calderon 
Quintero, a founding father of the drug cartel that dominates 
Sinaloa. Calderon was killed by police in 1988.

After moving to Culiacan in the 1970s, Vizcarra started out with a 
few cows, then received cash from friends and relatives whom he won't 
identify. Within a few years he had built Grupo Viz, a meat 
production and exportation conglomerate worth today an estimated $800 million.

As his wealth grew, he was welcomed into the posh Roma and Sinaloa 
gentlemen's clubs and the main business associations as he cut 
lucrative deals in real estate and other ventures. Successive Sinaloa 
governors from the PRI juggernaut took him under their wing.

Soon, he was hosting dinners for Mexican presidents at his ranches, 
and in 2007 he was elected mayor of Culiacan.

In December, the Reforma newspaper published a photograph that showed 
Vizcarra attending an outdoor religious ceremony with Zambada and 
other traffickers or their relatives at a Zambada family ranch. 
Reforma said the photo was about 20 years old and was taken at a Mass 
for the Virgin of Guadalupe. Vizcarra downplayed the image, offering 
the improbable explanation that he was merely there to buy cattle.

Since then, one persistent rumor has dogged Vizcarra: that Zambada 
agreed to Vizcarra's request that he serve as his first son's 
godfather. That would make Zambada and Vizcarra compadres, an 
extremely important and cherished relationship in Mexican culture.

Vizcarra has refused to say whether that's true. Residents of Sinaloa 
report having heard the son boast of the relationship. Reporters who 
sought the baptismal records at the church where the ceremony took 
place found the relevant pages had been torn from the register.

Last month at the final candidates' debate of the gubernatorial 
campaign, Vizcarra's rival, Mario Lopez Valdez, stood at a lectern 
and looked squarely into the television camera. "Jesus Vizcarra," he 
said, "are you or are you not the compadre of El Mayo Zambada?"

Vizcarra ignored the question, reverting instead to a stock line he 
repeats frequently.

"I have never done anything against the law," he said, adding that 
the accusations against him are part of a "dirty war." "My work is 

Outside the debate, the crowd that had gathered chanted, "He should 
answer! He should answer!"

Lopez Valdez, widely known by the acronym of his names, Malova, is 
the owner of a chain of hardware stores and a federal senator who had 
been a member of the PRI but broke with the group. He is the 
candidate of an odd-bedfellows alliance of the leftist Revolutionary 
Democratic Party and the conservative PAN, President Calderon's party.

The tones of the two candidates' campaigns are striking in their contrast.

Vizcarra hardly mentions violence or drug trafficking. Instead, he 
repeats the mantra that he will "help the people" with jobs, paved 
roads, free diapers. His defenders praise him for an efficiently run 
city administration and his undying support for business.

Malova warns darkly of continued corruption and drug-fueled 
bloodshed. One of his campaign TV spots showed residents of Sinaloa 
blindfolded and gagged, surrounded by scenes of destruction.

"We are not safe in our streets. We are not safe in our homes," 
Malova said in an interview in the well-guarded house that serves as 
his campaign headquarters in Culiacan.

Vizcarra declined requests for an interview.

At a rally cleverly staged around Mexico's World Cup 2-0 win over 
France, Vizcarra cheered on potential voters and gave away soccer 
jerseys and balls.

Maria de Lourdes Clouthier, 63 and no relation to the congressman, 
stood in line with her daughter and granddaughter waiting for the 
freebies and planning to vote for Vizcarra because he's "done a lot" 
for the city.

Asked about the reports of his ties to Zambada, Clouthier tsk-tsked: 
"Oh, there's no reason to get in to that. No, no, no. It is not important." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake