Pubdate: Sat, 12 1999 
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 1999 Los Angeles Times.
Contact:  (213) 237-4712
Author: Sebastian Rotella, Times Staff Writer

Tentacles of Latin Drug Lords Extend Well Beyond Borders

BUENOS AIRES - In the Latin American nations that are the worst-case
showcases of sinister drug cartels, the wealth, firepower and agility of
the traffickers enable them to overwhelm almost every sector of society.

Not only do drug lords finance guerrilla armies that have driven government
forces out of large areas of Colombia, they have so warped social attitudes
that hit men pray to their own patron saint before they go out to do a job.
Not only do Mexican cartels buy politicians and police, their tentacles
allegedly extend into the banking system, the Roman Catholic Church and
even show business, judging from indications that this week's assassination
of a popular game show host in Mexico City might have been drug-related.

As a result, Latin American journalists find themselves virtually alone on
the front lines of a war. Covering drugs is no longer just a journalistic
beat; it becomes a crusade, and sometimes a suicide mission.

The globalization of crime in the 1990s showed how rapidly and insidiously
drug gangs invade new turf, agreed a panel of veteran journalists from
Latin America, Europe and the United States who met here this week at a
seminar on drug trafficking and the media.

Colombia and Mexico are on the far end of a continuum, but such disparate
nations as Argentina, Ireland and the United States may be closer than they
realize, the journalists agreed.

"Mexico is the perfect example that there is a path," said Cesar Romero,
the correspondent in Washington for Mexico's Reforma newspaper. "Yesterday
was Colombia. Today is Mexico. Tomorrow could be Argentina." In fact, U.S.
and Argentine authorities worry about this country's vulnerability:
Moneylaundering thrives in a prosperous economy. Mafiarelated corruption
scandals here bring down political figures and corrode entire police
forces. A twoyear wave of violent crime is blamed partly on the rising
presence of cocaine.

The threat to this most European of Latin American nations was brought home
in the comparative example offered by Paul Williams, an Irish investigative
journalist who told the story of his slain friend and colleague, Veronica

Starting in the mid-1980s, Williams and Guerin took the lead in documenting
the rise of heroin traffickers in Ireland and an accompanying surge in
street violence. Political leaders largely ignored the phenomenon; police
chiefs accused the journalists of sensationalism. That changed in 1994,
when a hit man gunned down Guerin at a traffic light.

"It was a tragic vindication of what we had been writing about for 12 to 15
years," said Williams, who has a degree in criminology and has gone
undercover to infiltrate drug gangs. "The government started to do
something." The death of Guerin connects Ireland to places such as
Colombia, one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. So does the
global reach of traffickers: Dublin gangsters have allied themselves with
Russian and Colombian gangsters to speed the flow of cocaine into Europe
from the west and heroin from the east, according to Williams.

Displaying enormous courage and investigative skills, journalists in the
worst-hit nations end up doing more than police and prosecutors to bring
down gangsters and their corrupt government allies.

For all the heroism and tenacity, however, the media are by no means
immune. Drug lords have literally bought the services of top journalists in
Colombia and taken over newspapers in Mexico, adding the potent weapon of
the press to their arsenal, the panelists said.

This tragic panorama seems comfortably far from the United States, the
world's top consumer of illegal narcotics. But many Latin Americans find
the U.S. view of drug mafias as a shadowy foreign threat to be disturbingly

The panelists cited the cases in which renegade U.S. authorities have been
discovered aiding the smuggling of drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.

They suggested that those cases are the tip of the iceberg.

Urging U.S. journalists to take a closer look at drug corruption at home,
Romero said: "It's as if it were a magic phenomenon, as if there were only
one side of the border. The corrupt Mexican police help move the drugs to
the border, and the rest happens by magic."
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