Pubdate: 14 May 1999
Source: Boston Phoenix (MA)
Copyright: 1999 by Al Giordano
Author: Al Giordano
Note: Al Giordano is a former political reporter for the Boston Phoenix.


The untold story behind February's Yucatán summit redefines the enemy in 
the war on drugs

If the facts of the story were made of cocaine powder, the entire White 
House press corps would have sneezed; the news was right under their noses. 
Any one of them could have written:

MÉRIDA, MEXICO, FEBRUARY 15, 1999: US president William Clinton met today 
with Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo to negotiate better cooperation 
between their nations in the fight against drugs. Incredibly, the 
anti-narcotics summit was hosted by powerful Mexican banker Roberto 
Hernández Ramírez, a man publicly accused of trafficking cocaine and 
laundering illicit drug money. . . .

But that story wasn't reported in the States, despite a controversy over 
Hernández's alleged involvement in the drug trade that's raged on the 
Yucatán peninsula for two years.

Tambien, en español.

The heart-shaped box appeared on Air Force One. It was Valentine's Day 
1999, and the Comeback Kid was getting out of Dodge. Bill Clinton had, just 
two days prior, escaped vanquishment by the US Senate in Washington, DC. 
The presidential jet roared out of the February chill toward the tropical 
city of Mérida.

Clinton, in a video image broadcast across the globe that evening, stepped 
into the press cabin of the plane wielding a big pink heart-shaped box and 
doled out valentine chocolates to the reporters and photographers covering 
this trip. And to underscore with levity that the subject would now be 
changed -- from impeachment and Monica to "drugs" -- the White House press 
handlers regaled the journalists with bottles of hemp beer. The marijuana 
in the brew's recipe was reportedly non-intoxicating. Still, they were 
high, on laughter if not impunity, on Air Force One.

Awaiting the presidential entourage in Mérida was the US ambassador to 
Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow. In the weeks before, while most of the White House 
staff was busy steering the president through domestic political crisis, 
Davidow had been in Mexico, laying the groundwork for the presidential 
visit. Davidow is no novice. He cut his diplomatic teeth at the US embassy 
in Santiago, Chile, from 1971 to '73, the period when the US and General 
Augusto Pinochet were plotting to destabilize the elected government of 
president Salvador Allende. By the time Air Force One landed in Mérida, 
everything on the ground was under control.

The city's central streets were deserted. Nine square blocks had been 
sealed by Mexican state and federal police. Hundreds of US Secret Service 
agents had blanketed the region days in advance. They peered through their 
sunglasses from rooftops. Their network of cell phones fell like a web over 
the ancient Mayan capital. The city's annual Carnaval -- with its wild 
nightly parades, when seemingly every one of Mérida's 750,000 residents 
emerges onto the streets and dances in plumed costumes to Caribbean rhythms 
-- had been disappeared for the evening. The Dry Law was imposed.

Mérida on a normal day or night is an unusually tranquil city. Not even the 
police are armed. The response of the citizenry to the evening's 
invasion-of-state was to ignore the presidential summit almost completely. 
In the previous night's parades, throughout the city not a single banner 
was hung; nothing to welcome or to protest the arrival of Clinton and 
Zedillo. About 300 people did show up in City Square to cheer the gringos' 
arrival. They were supporters of Mexico's ruling political party who had 
received tickets to pass through the police lines, or they were folk 
dancers hired to provide a festive view from the second-floor dining hall 
where the dignitaries would nosh.

Davidow was in the first mini-bus to arrive at Mérida's City Square from 
the airport. Behind him came the presidents and their wives, cabinet 
members, congressional supporters, and the international working press. A 
few pool photographers and reporters would be escorted inside a historic 
building to snap some photos of the dignitaries and scribble reports over 
dinner. The rest of the journalists were herded by bus to five-star hotels 
to enjoy an early exemption from the Dry Law. The luxury-hotel district, 
too, was sealed off by police and the Secret Service.

Upstairs in the Hotel Fiesta Americana, the suites were equipped with phone 
and computer jacks for the visiting press. Pool reports of the diplomatic 
dinner and schedules of tomorrow's itinerary were ready and waiting. The 
two presidents would be flown by helicopter the next morning, February 15, 
a short distance to the Temozon Sur plantation -- the luxurious refurbished 
ranch owned by Roberto Hernández Ramírez, president-owner of BANAMEX (the 
National Bank of Mexico before Hernández bought it from the government a 
decade ago). Forbes magazine lists Hernández as number 289 among the 
wealthiest men on earth.

President Zedillo had been staying at the Hernández estate since February 
12, though Hernández himself was not present at the summit meeting. That 
two presidents would enjoy the hospitality of a powerful businessman would 
not, by itself, raise many eyebrows.

But had just one of the White House correspondents holed up in the Fiesta 
Americana, the Hyatt, or the Holiday Inn wandered downtown or even 
downstairs to a newsstand, the official history of the summit might have 
been very different. Even a reporter who did not read Spanish might have 
comprehended the banner headline in the Mérida daily Por Esto!: ROBERTO 

That same Valentine's Day, Por Esto! published the first installment of a 
three-part series about the banker, his rise to wealth and power, his 
political clout, and his alleged involvement with drugs and drug money. The 
series -- including 350 column-inches of text documented by 45 photographs 
(31 in color), plus three maps tracing the route of Colombian cocaine 
through the banker's properties -- ran over three consecutive days.

According to the newspaper and its sources, coastal marshlands purchased by 
Hernández in the late '80s and early '90s were the port of entry for 
massive volumes of cocaine delivered in small Colombian speedboats. From 
there, tons of the drug were loaded onto small planes and flown north from 
Hernández's private airfield. Hernández, the newspaper charged, was hiding 
behind empty "eco-tourism" resorts to wash drug profits.

The series was a journalistic tour de force, the culmination of a 26-month 
investigation into the 43 kilometers of beachfront property owned by 
Hernández -- a region known by the locals as the "Coca Triangle."

The newspaper went even further: it filed federal criminal complaints 
against Hernández for drug trafficking, for the robbery of national 
archeological treasures (his properties include the ancient Mayan ruins of 
Chac Mool and others), and for the environmental destruction caused by the 
cocaine-trafficking operations to the Sian Ka'an nature preserve.

Not a word about this controversy would appear in the US news media before 
or after the Clinton-Zedillo summit. One could search the Internet, 
Lexis-Nexis, the major dailies, the wire services, the entire 
English-speaking world; the story was neither published, promoted, 
criticized, nor rebutted.

And yet the story has raged in Yucatán and the eastern Yucatán coastal 
state of Quintana Roo, where the property in question is located, since 
December 16, 1996, when a fishermen's cooperative blew the whistle on 
Hernández's cocaine port and airfield to Por Esto! and pointed the 
newspaper to the evidence. Por Esto! published the fishermen's accounts of 
threats and harassment by Hernández, who, they said, wanted to drive them 
off their lands to eliminate witnesses to his drug-smuggling operation. 
Hernández returned fire in 1997, filing charges of trespassing and 
defamation against reporter Renán Castro Madera, regional editor Santos 
Gabriel Us Aké, and editor and publisher Mario Menéndez Rodríguez. Public 
opinion has not favored Hernández's complaints. Since 1996, more than 100 
town councils, unions, and civic organizations throughout the Yucatán 
Peninsula have passed resolutions supporting the newspaper in its fight to 
expose the man they call a narco-banker.

The story got new legs on March 28, when the powerful governor of Quintana 
Roo, Mario Villanueva Madrid, disappeared during his last week of office, 
fleeing from drug-trafficking charges. An often crude but always 
media-savvy politician, Villanueva has issued videotaped communiqués and 
even bought newspaper ads from his hidden locations claiming that the 
prosecution against him is an act of political vengeance. The now 
ex-governor of the Caribbean state that's home to the world-class Cancún 
tourist resorts is not going down quietly. He may drag others down with 
him, including Clinton's pal Roberto Hernández Ramírez.

"I have a lot of information," Villanueva told the Mexican national daily 
Reforma on March 23, a few days before his disappearance. "A lot. It can 
involve more people. In the event that this is not resolved I will make it 

The story is migrating north, and there's not a border patrol that can stop it.

Until now, international media accounts of rampant drug-war corruption on 
Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula have for the most part been managed and 
controlled by official US and Mexican sources. The investigation and 
prosecution of Villanueva -- a joint venture of the US and Mexican 
governments and, now, the 176 nations of the international police agency 
Interpol that have joined the manhunt -- was supposed to reinforce the 
party line that narco-corruption at the highest levels will no longer be 

But the takedown of Villanueva -- surely a crook, deeply involved in 
protecting the illicit drug trade and in other criminal and anti-democratic 
ventures -- merely diverts attention from the wheel of institutionalized 
corruption in which he was a cog. By profiting from drug traffic, 
Villanueva was simply enjoying the fruits that all governors of the ruling 
party have been granted for decades. The same institutions that chase him 
today protected him for almost six years in office. Villanueva's mysterious 
escape, and his promise to spill the secrets of the Mexican narco-state, 
have already begun to shake the comfy worlds of powerful people -- among 
them BANAMEX owner Hernández and his presidential houseguests.

Hernández blamed Villanueva, at the time Quintana Roo's governor, for Por 
Esto!'s 1996 reports about his alleged drug crimes. The banker addressed 
the problem the way most public-relations disasters are managed in Mexico. 
"Hernández complained to President Zedillo," reported the Mexico City daily 
El Universal on April 5, "who at his turn had spoken with Villanueva, but 
the attacks did not cease."

This was the first time El Universal or any national newspaper had 
mentioned Hernández in connection with narco-news. And even then, it was 
included almost as an aside in a colorful profile, by writer Mario Lara 
Klahr, on governor-turned-fugitive Villanueva. The spin of the profile was 
that the governor and Hernández were at war because Villanueva was 
"interested" in the bank owner's coastal properties.

That same day, El Universal, one of Mexico's two major establishment 
broadsheets, published an almost full-page interview with Hernández about 
the banking industry -- a puff piece complete with flattering photo 
portraits. The daily did not ask Hernández about the drug charges or, even 
generically, about the Mexican banking industry's current 
drug-money-laundering crisis -- even though, just five days before, three 
major Mexican banks (including BANAMEX's top competitor, Bancomer) had pled 
guilty in US federal court to hiding hundreds of millions of dollars for 
the giant cocaine cartels.

Lara's piece, meanwhile, also included the unsubstantiated supposition that 
Villanueva was an owner of Por Esto! In fact, Villanueva's government had 
harassed and threatened Por Esto! repeatedly -- withholding payment for 
government advertising, failing to provide police response to a payroll 
robbery at the newspaper's Cancún offices, and excluding the paper's 
reporters and photographers from official functions.

Por Esto! is published by Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, a well-known and 
combative veteran journalist whose political activism dates back to Mexico 
City's 1968 student movement. Menéndez publishes dailies in both Mérida and 
Cancún and has been imprisoned several times for his anti-government reports.

"The governor of Quintana Roo is not an owner of Por Esto! That's 
ridiculous," says Menéndez. "Look at the printing machinery we use. It's 
always breaking. The people of this region know how I live and how this 
newspaper works. If El Universal has some documentation or proof that he 
has anything to do with this newspaper, I challenge them to show it. Of 
course, I am preparing a response."

(A week after the El Universal story, the national magazine Proceso 
reported that Hernández himself had orchestrated the leak of documents upon 
which Mexico's national press had based the report.)

On April 12, Por Esto! resumed publishing the results of its investigations 
into Hernández's affairs, vowing: "Loyal to the truth, Por Esto! will not 
fold in the fight. . . . The federal executive branch is the major 
accomplice of the drug barons in Mexico."

The accompanying story linked a BANAMEX legal-department director -- the 
Republic's former first assistant attorney general, who was fired, 
according to Por Esto!, for his illegal activities related to drug 
trafficking -- to three known drug traffickers, one a witness under the 
protection of US anti-drug prosecutors, and charged that the US government 
has "wide and deep knowledge" of Hernández's drug-trafficking activities. 
The newspaper also identified the state delegate of the Mexican federal 
prosecutor's office as a former BANAMEX employee and reported that the 
Mexican armed forces responsible for drug enforcement on the peninsula have 
received orders not to enter Hernández's coastal properties, which, 
according to Por Esto!, are still being used as a major cocaine-trafficking 

That Menéndez continues with the investigation is no surprise. What is new 
is that, for the first time, other journalists are taking on the story.

Carlos Ramírez, editor of the feisty national political magazine La Crisis, 
publishes a daily column in both El Universal and Por Esto! In an April 6 
column analyzing the Villanueva case, he blamed the ex-governor's fall from 
grace on his antagonism with Hernández, "the all-powerful owner of 
BANAMEX," over tourist-development sites in and around Cancún.

"Villanueva lost due to the weight of the power relations of BANAMEX," 
Ramírez wrote, going on to describe a strong personal and social 
relationship between BANAMEX's Hernández and Mexican president Ernesto 
Zedillo, who, Ramírez reported, has vacationed at the banker's Cancún 
haciendas and at a Hernández-owned Caribbean island that's been linked to 
the late Colombian narco-trafficker Pablo Escobar Gaviria.

The April 11 edition of Proceso, the most respected newsweekly in Mexico, 
ended the Mexican national media's long reluctance to repeat Por Esto!'s 
drug-trafficking charges against Hernández. Under the headline WITH THE 
a private September 1998 meeting between then-governor Villanueva and 
journalists during which Villanueva confided, "Behind this smear campaign 
that has been unleashed against me I see the hand of Roberto Hernández." 
The piece went on to describe Por Esto!'s campaign to portray Hernández as 
a drug trafficker, relaying the paper's reports that almost 30 percent of 
the nearly 30 tons of cocaine intercepted by the Mexican prosecutor 
general's agents had been seized on property owned by the BANAMEX chief. It 
noted Hernández's 1997 suits against the paper and reported that, the 
previous week, Quintana Roo judge Marco Antonio Traconis Varguez had issued 
arrest warrants against three of the paper's journalists.

The gamble taken by the White House and the US Embassy in Mexico -- that 
the drug story on Clinton's host would never get out -- has already been lost.

Jorge Madrazo Cuéllar, Prosecutor General of the Republic -- Mexico's 
equivalent of the attorney general -- is understandably nervous about 
Villanueva's escape and its mounting consequences for his own job. 
Opposition leaders have already called Madrazo before the federal House of 
Deputies to answer charges that he intentionally let Villanueva slip away. 
(At that meeting, Madrazo divulged that many of his former prosecutors and 
officers have gone to work as cocaine traffickers -- an admission by the 
chief federal prosecutor that his office has functioned as a narco-school.)

The defendant ex-governor remains at large -- and looms large -- buying 
full-page ads in national dailies and issuing video communiqués that may 
soon begin to implicate his nemesis Hernández directly in the narco-trade.

And so in a bizarre act of prosecution-by-publicity, the prosecutor general 
is defending his behavior by taking out ads of his own.

The opening advertisement for the prosecution, published on April 9 in all 
of Mexico's major national newspapers, enumerated five major denials that 
were surreal in their capacity to suggest the opposite of their intent. The 
ad stated:

· that the drug charges against Villanueva were not politically motivated;

· that no United States agency had pressured Mexican prosecutors to jail 

· that the Villanueva prosecution was unrelated to the fifth anniversary of 
the homicide of 1994 presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and was 
not an attempt to divert public attention from that case;

· that the Villanueva prosecution was not motivated by "personal obsession 
by the Prosecutor General of the Republic";

· that the Villanueva investigation had nothing to do with Roberto 
Hernández Ramírez's legal action against Por Esto!

All of the above are plausible in their inverse; the case could be 
motivated by a confluence of political factors. If we heed the journalistic 
principle "follow the money," the weightiest of them -- reaching to the 
White House in Washington -- involves presidential pal Hernández and his 
vast power as the BANAMEX owner.

Por Esto! reported the story, and the result was that three of its 
journalists are today being persecuted with live arrest warrants. But the 
escape of Governor Villanueva has forced Mexico's national press to accept 
that there is indeed a story here. Whether US media organizations that 
cover Mexico will do their job remains to be seen. But when Bill Clinton 
agreed to hold his anti-drug summit with the Mexican president on 
Hernández's plantation, he inadvertently invited their scrutiny. The 
invitation came with the heart-shaped box.