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thomas a. constantine

Thomas A. Constantine is the administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
COULD WE START WITH YOUR OVERALL VIEW OF THE DRUG CARTELS IN GENERAL.....CAN YOU SUM IT UP?

One of the things that I think is important for the American public to understand - but that is sometimes difficult to understand - is that when we say organized crime in the United States, we all have a vision of 'The Godfather' or John Gotti going to prison, in the sense that they control a lot of the criminal destiny in United States.

What I think people never understood, and that now we are gradually understanding, is that the group from Cali, Colombia were really the most sophisticated organized crime syndicate the world had ever seen. And they make the mafia in the United States look like elementary school children for the amount of money they earn, the amount of violence that was involved, the influence that they had -- they virtually influenced the entire country.

And what has happened in the last 4 or 5 years is they (Cali) in essence have taught these criminal organizations from Mexico. We have really kind of decimated the people in Cali, Colombia. The groups from Mexico have in essence taken their place. I don't think they're quite yet at a level of the people from Cali, but they are the most powerful in the world, as we sit here in 1997, because of the destruction of the people and the organizations in Colombia.

THIS PHENOMENA STARTED HAPPENING ABOUT WHEN?

Well, they never told us the date that they were going to start. But as far as we can picture, it was in the late 1980s when we cut off to a degree the Caribbean and the east coast of Florida and the major places that cocaine was coming into the United States. The people from Colombia went to Mexico, sent people to Mexico and made an arrangement to use the Mexican organized crime as a transportation group, just land the tonnage into Mexico, drive it across in cars into the United States and turn it back over to Colombian organized crime for a thousand dollars a kilo, we heard.

The light bulb must have went off someplace when somebody said, wait a minute, they're making $14,000 a kilo and we're only getting $1,000. So then a decision was made somewhere along the line, we think about 2 or 3 years ago, that half of the load as it landed in Mexico would be the property of these huge gangs in Mexico. All of the cocaine would come across the border to United States, half would be turned over to Colombian organized crime cells, usually on the west or east coast, and the other half would be taken over by these new Mexican organized crime cells.

What we've seen, especially in the last six months, is that as we have had, we think, an impact on the organizations out of Cali, we've seen the Mexicans become predominant in the major areas of the United States where we've never seen them before. We had never, ever observed them in any degree of substantial operation in the northeast or in New York City, and all of sudden, all at once, we had 3 or 4 major cases involving multi-ton shipments.

MEXICO EXPERIENCED ITS WORST ECONOMIC RECESSION, DEPRESSION TWO YEARS AGO. WHAT YOU'RE SAYING IS THAT THERE IS A GROWTH SECTOR IN THE MEXICAN ECONOMY.

Oh, they were never touched, I wouldn't think, by all of those economic situations that touched the normal business or economic system of Mexico. In fact they became a growth industry and became more powerful. They probably make billions of dollars a year tax-free that goes into the hands of the leaders of these immense criminal organizations. If you could take the movie 'The Godfather' and look at some of the scenes and as people talked about distributing drugs in the leadership and replace those figures that we're familiar with, with individuals named Carlos Fuentes and the Arellano-Felix brothers that's really what you're dealing with.

SO THIS STARTED ABOUT THE LATE 80S, THIS TRANSFORMATION? SO IT STARTED WITH THE BEGINNING OF THE SALINAS PRESIDENCY IN MEXICO AND REACHED ITS APEX YOU'RE SAYING TOWARDS THE END.

Well, it started in the late 1980s because of the pressure the United States put on in the area of Florida and the east coast. And it started as just using transportation groups, kind of a fee based transaction. They then began, and I think it had little to do with the political situation, to do more with criminals recognizing a chance to make a great deal of money, and they changed from being a transportation group to an organized crime system.

AND WE READ THAT IF THE TRAFFIC NETS $10 BILLION FOR THE MEXICAN CARTELS, $SIX BILLION OF IT GOES INTO CORRUPTION?

Well, the information that we have, this mostly starts with the Colombian Cali. We know that the group who taught the groups from Mexico a great deal of this, that half of the money that was received, that .....has set up 60% of all of the cash that came back into Colombia; half the 60% went to corrupting public officials.

There actually was a plane that landed with $30 million. $15 million was given to the trafficker, the other $15 million was kept for the corruption of public officials in Colombia. Given that the model 's so similar and that the figures we see on corruption with the value of some of the corrupt acts that have been reported, we think it might be similar or equal to the same thing in Mexico.

SO WHAT HAS BEEN THE RESULT OF ALL THIS MONEY IN TERMS OF THE LAW ENFORCEMENT SITUATION?

Well it's very difficult. I mean the law enforcement institutions in Mexico were never that strong to begin with. Now you have a situation where you have a powerful organized crime syndicate, organized crime syndicates can only exist in Sicily or New York or in Cali or in Guadalajara if they're able to corrupt the government and to intimidate the common citizen. That's the only way organized crime syndicates prosper. So the fact that they are so powerful and they're able to operate often without being arrested or being charged is indicative of the fact that they have influenced the system greatly.

RECENTLY THERE HAVE BEEN ALL KINDS OF INDICATIONS THAT THE LEVEL OF CORRUPTION GOES UP PRETTY HIGH.

Well that's not shocking to us. High level corruption, of individuals by drug traffickers--there have been rumors and innuendoes about that for a long time. I think that since the arrest of the general who had been placed in charge of the DEA for Mexico, the INCD, was symbolic of the problem and the level that it had reached. I don't think anybody was shocked by that in effect.

The second thing that I thought was very interesting to us was the civil trial and the money for the former deputy attorney general of Mexico in which people testified that millions of dollars was delivered to the general and apparently the judge and jury in Houston, Texas believed that at the trial. That is obviously the demonstrated level publicly where this has reached.

BUT IN THE CASE OF THE GENERAL REBOLLO OUR UNDERSTANDING IS THAT HE HAD ACCESS TO ALL THE INTELLIGENCE FILES OF THE MEXICAN ATTORNEY GENERAL OR THE INCD FILES. AND APPARENTLY HE WAS BRIEFED BY U.S. LAW ENFORCEMENT TO SOME EXTENT IN TERMS OF WHAT OUR INFORMATION WAS WHO DO YOU DEAL WITH IN MEXICO NOW?

Well as far as the briefing, we gave the briefing to the attorney general of Mexico right here at DEA, but it was very much an open, unclassified briefing. So there was not any substantial information that could have been compromised in that particular briefing. Our concern is that for the 10 or 12 weeks that he was in office, he had access to each and every investigation that was ongoing with the INCD or with the INCD in concert with the DEA.

We also know that his predecessor has indicated that he turned over all of the files of every open investigation to an individual we now know was effectively totally corrupted. We're operating on the assumption that every investigation that he knew about or was involved has been compromised, and what we're doing now is a damage assessment to determine how seriously they've been compromised.

THE FEDERAL JUDICIAL POLICE IN MEXICO ARE NOTORIOUSLY CORRUPT. THE INCD APPARENTLY WAS COMPROMISED. THE ARMY IN MEXICO HAD A HISTORY OF INVOLVEMENT IN CORRUPTION PARTICULARLY IN THE DRUG AREA. WHO DOES U.S. LAW ENFORCEMENT TURN TO WHEN IT COMES TO DOING OPERATIONS IN MEXICO?

You've hit the problem right on the head. The major civilian law enforcement institutions in Mexico, the Mexican, the federal judicial police, which the government has said is dysfunctional as a result of corruption. The drug enforcement agency for the nation, the INCD, the general has been removed for corruption and it's our understanding that 45 other substantial figures in that organization have been removed on the suspicion of corruption. I can't tell you what acts they may have compromised or how corrupt they may be. The opinion of the government of Mexico, the state and the local police would be corrupted substantially in the area of drug enforcement.

We're placed in a position of trying to find an agency within the government of Mexico that we could share sensitive information with. This had to be on a need to know basis, and it's very difficult for us because there's no way you can conduct an organized crime investigation that spans the border between two countries unless you have agencies that you can trust that will take that information and use it to arrest the leaders of organized crime.

And at the present point in time, we just haven't found an institution that we feel we can share that information with. And the secret will be for the government of Mexico working with the United States for them to develop an institution that they have trust in. They presently have removed the civilian law enforcement for the most part from every sensitive assignment and turned it over to the military.

BUT THE MILITARY HAS TURNED OUT TO BE MAYBE AS CORRUPT.

Well we don't know an awful lot about the military because our interaction has been mostly with law enforcement. Eventually in any society you have to have civilian law enforcement responsible for the investigation of crime, it's just not the role for any military institution in United States, Western Europe or in Mexico. What's going to have to happen is that there's going to have to be a development of an institution, a civilian law enforcement that the government of Mexico says can be trusted and can be trusted completely and then we can share sensitive information. That has to start some place and we hope it's going to start fairly soon.

THERE'S BEEN PLENTY OF PUBLICITY RECENTLY ABOUT INDIVIDUALS RANGING FROM GONZALES CALDERONI TO OTHERS WHO WERE INVOLVED IN THE SALINAS ERA, WHO HAD TIES TO MEXICAN ORGANIZED CRIME AND MEXICAN DRUG CARTELS, OF GETTING INTO THE MEXICAN, LET'S SAY INTO THE PRESIDENCY OF MEXICO. IS THERE ANY REASON TO BELIEVE THAT THE CORRUPTION IN THE ZEDILLO ADMINISTRATION DOESN'T GO AS HIGH?

Well, I have to take it as a given in dealing with President Zedillo that he's honest. I'm heartened by the fact that they arrested two high ranking generals.We've never seen that before. Which indicates a commitment to doing something about it. There is no information that we would have that they have been corrupted. We just have to see how it plays out. The secret in all of this I think will be the results, are the leaders of these organizations, arrested, brought to justice and punished commensurate with their crime. That will be the proof for everybody.

Whenthe Arellano- Felix brothers and all of their key lieutenants, when Amado Fuentes and all of his key lieutenants, and that whole structure is arrested, tried, brought to justice, and sentenced as the organized crime fugitives that they are, that will be the ultimate passion I think of any government.

BUT EVEN THE GOVERNMENT OF MEXICO TOLD US THAT IN THE CASE OF FOR INSTANCE TIJUANA, THEY DON'T REALLY HAVE CONTROL. THE PARTY IN CONTROL IS THE OPPOSITION PARTY, EVERY POLICE COMMANDER THEY SEND IN TO ARREST THE ARELLANO-FELIX BROTHERS IS ASSASSINATED, OR THE PROSECUTORS WHO COME IN TO MAKE THE CASE THAT THE POLICE CHIEF'S BEEN BUMPED OFF, THEY CAN'T EVEN DO ANYTHING AFTER THEY KILL A CARDINAL.

Well that was one of our major concerns this summer and fall, was the assassination of leading law enforcement officials and the police and prosecutor's office unsolved crimes--unsolved in the sense that the people really ultimately responsible for it were not brought to justice. Being a career police officer, when you see that happen, you realize that lower level police officers and the people who were involved are going to be very, very uncomfortable with their present position. I think those are the types of things that have to be brought under control if there's going to be any success.

IN OUR INVESTIGATION, THERE SEEMED TO BE A SMALL CLIQUE OF VERY WEALTHY PEOPLE--SOMETIMES THEY'RE POLITICIANS, SOMETIMES THEY'RE JUST BUSINESSMEN, OR THEY'RE BOTH-- WHO ARE IN A SENSE THE POWER STRUCTURE OF THE COUNTRY. TO WHAT EXTENT ARE THEY INVOLVED IN THIS NEW GROWTH INDUSTRY?

Well, our information is for the most part restricted to criminals who are involved in the actual criminal activity . We go after them and we use all of our energy to try to identify crimes that Carrillo Fuentes, or the Arellano-Felix brothers would be involved in. From time to time as a result of those investigations, we determine that there's some corrupt information. For the most part that's in the police or a prosecutor's office. When we can, if it's worthwhile, we would share that with the government. Aspects in the business community, in the economy of Mexico, would really be beyond my knowledge and beyond the knowledge of DEA as a law enforcement institutions.

BUT ISN'T THE DEA AWARE OF, LET'S SAY, U.S. FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS THAT HAVE BEEN INVOLVED IN HANDLING BILLIONS OF DOLLARS OR HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN SOME CASES, OF MONEY LAUNDERING AND MEXICAN DRUG PROFITS IN THIS COUNTRY?

From time to time, when we do a money laundering investigation, we will determine that one of the stops of the money would be individual legitimate institutions, and there may very well be from time to time corrupt people or people who've been corrupted in those institutions. But systemic corruption or looking at those economic institutions, really that is not the role for the DEA either in the United States but certainly not in another country.

The DEA is fairly narrowly defined in the narcotics trafficking and we have enough to do just going after those targets. But to go on farther into somebody's business community or a ruling elite is just really not a role that we're equipped to do.

THE FOREIGN MINISTRY OF MEXICO SAYS TO ME -- 'ASK ADMINISTRATOR CONSTANTINE WHO HE TRUSTS IN MEXICO.'

Well, there are institutions and some of them that we have trusted in the past, we trust Mr. Madrazo the attorney general. We were asked by the foreign ministry to trust General Gutierrez, and that has turned out to be an individual, as we now know, that we could not trust.

THAT WAS A BIG DISAPPOINTMENT.

The attorney general of Mexico and the foreign ministry had attested that this was an individual with whom we would be able to do even more. I'd never met him before, I did not know of him. Then to see that he had been arrested, it really compromised so many investigations. But I would feel comfortable sharing information with the attorney general of Mexico, both attorney general Madrazo and also attorney general Lozano before him.

SO IT ISN'T A QUESTION OF THE DEA, IN A SENSE, GIVING UP ON MEXICO?

Well, how could you give up? Because the organized crime syndicates that control so much of the events that happen in United States are based in Mexico. And the interaction on crime is so day to day. I mean as we sit here today, somebody is deciding how much cocaine they should ship to Houston, how much cocaine to ship to New York City, how to get the money out, who should be assassinated in San Diego County or Los Angeles County? What individual has committed an act that harms the leaders of these drug trafficking organizations? Who should be murdered on a highway? As long as that happens and the crime spans from one country to another, I don't think you can disengage. I think you have to stay engaged.

DO YOU THINK THIS IS BASICALLY THE BIGGEST INTERNATIONAL CRIME THREAT TO UNITED STATES?

It is presently in my experience. I mean I look at 37 years of dealing with criminal activity and law enforcement, a lot of it in the area of organized crime, traditional organized crime in the United States. I've worked on families in New York City and New York state. I've never seen organizations this powerful as the ones in Cali and now, the ones in Mexico. And in my opinion, they're the most powerful in the world, at least as far as the impact on the United States is concerned.



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