Reprinted with permission of The New Republic.
Copyright (c)1997. All rights reserved.
The first thing to understand about drug corruption in Mexico, and the
Clinton administration's failure to deal with it, is that the capture of
Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo was an accident. Until a few weeks ago, Gutierrez was
Mexico's top official in the war on drugs, appointed in December to head the
National Institute to Combat Drugs (incd), Mexico's version of the Drug
Enforcement Administration. Gutierrez was also, allegedly, on the take from one
of Mexico's major drug cartels, an embarrassment he hid from his bosses and
Washington for seven years. But the general's new appointment went to his head.
Apparently deciding he was not living up to his station in life, Gutierrez
rented an apartment in a fancy neighborhood. When Gutierrez's boss, Defense
Secretary Enrique Cervantes Aguirre, heard about his employee's new digs,
struck him as too rich for a general's salary. Shortly before midnight on
February 6, Cervantes summoned Gutierrez and started questioning him.
Cervantes would later tell reporters that Gutierrez became "visibly
and disturbed by the questions and gave confused answers." Watching Gutierrez
sputter and gasp, Cervantes suddenly realized that the 62-year-old might be
suffering a heart attack, and he sent him to the hospital. Over the next few
days, while Gutierrez lay recovering from what was in fact a mild heart attack,
the questioning continued. It soon focused on the general's relationship with
the Mexican national Amado Carillo Fuentes, who some DEA officials consider to
be the world's most powerful drug trafficker, and who is believed to control
the movement of drugs into the United States through Ciudad Juarez, a border
boom city just across the Rio Grande from El Paso that has become in recent
years a main point of entry for drugs coming into the United States. Carillo
"can move drugs anywhere in the U.S." from Brownsville to San Diego, "anytime
he wants to, day or night," says Peter Lupsha, a senior researcher at the
University of New Mexico's Latin American Institute. Lupsha estimates Carillo
grosses $10 billion a year from his drug running and attendant businesses. It
is said that he pays millions in
bribes each year to keep himself in business. On February 18, Defense
Cervantes announced that Gutierrez had aided the Carillo cartel for seven years
by protecting cocaine shipments in exchange for vehicles, real estate and cash.
It is hard to imagine a drug-war development more embarrassing for the
Clinton administration. Just weeks ago, the administration had welcomed
Gutierrez to Washington, where U.S. drug czar General Barry McCaffrey praised
him as a man of "absolute, unquestioned integrity." Far worse, American
officials had used the visit to provide Gutierrez with their latest
on Mexico's drug traffickers, possibly endangering informants. White House
officials are still fuming that the Mexican government allowed Gutierrez to
visit Washington and receive this information--twelve days after the Mexicans
began to suspect that Gutierrez was bent.
The embarrassment (and danger to DEA agents and informants in Mexico)
probably could have been avoided. According to a former American counter-
narcotics official, there is reason to believe that a department within the DEA
had some indication that Gutierrez had "a history of associations with drug
traffickers," but this information was never developed and passed on to
policymakers. "There was a disconnect," the official said. "The people who
needed to know were not informed." James J. McGivney, a spokesman for the
says there were no suspicions about Gutierrez before the charges were
"It's not our job to vet these people," he says. "We don't go around spooking
military and government officials; we've got enough to do with the crooks."
did not mention that Gutierrez appears to have been one and the same.
As it happened, the arrest of Gutierrez came at the moment the U.S.
government was readying its annual "certification" that Mexico is cooperating
with efforts to stop drugs from entering this country. The annual narcotics
certification process is outlined in the Foreign Assistance Act and requires
president to identify countries that produce and export drugs and then to
determine whether or not their governments are making progress in stemming
export of drugs to the United States. If a nation is decertified for lack of
cooperation, counter-narcotics aid continues, but the nation loses most other
assistance. The president, though, can grant a "vital national interest" waiver
to a country that fails to meet expectations. This qualifies as decertification
but with an exception that allows the country to still receive aid.
With the arrest of Gutierrez, the awkwardness that has been obvious for
in recertifying Mexico became excruciating. Should the Clinton administration
approve $25 to $62 million in foreign aid this year to a country whose chief
anti-narcotics cop was allegedly facilitating the transport of narcotics into
the United States?
The White House seemed at first inclined to dismiss the question.
Clinton said he found the Gutierrez scandal "deeply troubling," then
characteristically praised the Mexican government for making the arrest. But,
the story stayed on the front page into the week in which the administration
to decide on certification, the tone changed. On February 25, while the Mexican
government was frantically signaling better intentions by dismissing dozens
suspect incd employees, Thomas Constantine, head of the DEA, was testifying
Congress that there is not a single Mexican law enforcement agency that the DEA
fully trusts. With the president's decision on certification only two days
The New York Times reported on its front page that the White House was for
first time seriously considering some form of decertification for Mexico.
This, though, was sound and fury orchestrated by the White House, and it
signified not much beyond positioning. "I don't care what was in the Times
today," said a senior White House official that afternoon. "We are going to end
up with certification, and there is not going to be any ifs, ands or buts
about it. Fully decertifying Mexico is not an option. It is not on the table.
I'm not even sure if decertification with a waiver is on the table." Despite
presence for the first time of voices within the White House itself--and not
just from the DEA--arguing for decertification, the official said the
administration would satisfy itself with "some very stiff messages delivered to
the Mexicans about their performance" and recertify on the grounds that, as
usual, progress was being made.
The Gutierrez scandal illustrates how deeply corruption from drug
has burrowed into Mexican society, infiltrating and subverting government at
levels, and of how determinedly the Clinton administration has declined to
publicly deal with it. Prior to last week, the Mexican military was thought
be the one arm of the state relatively untainted by drug corruption, at least
its upper reaches. The shock of Gutierrez has destroyed that false sense of
comfort. The corruption is cloaked in layers of deception; crooked law
enforcement officials commonly use their jobs as cover, building their
reputations as lawmen and patriots through carefully chosen and staged busts.
In early January, for instance, General Gutierrez ordered a raid on a
that Amado Carillo Fuentes was attending in the state of Sinaloa. Three hundred
troops wound up crashing the wedding reception of Carillo's sister in an effort
to catch her brother--who had been tipped off and had already left. This very
public attempt to capture Carillo is only one of three showy tries Gutierrez
claimed to have made to bring in Carillo. The deceptions practiced by Mexican
officials like Gutierrez have found an easy mark in the Clinton White House. In
the past several years, as America's neighbor has become America's biggest
narcotics menace, President Clinton has avoided all criticism of Mexico, indeed
nearly all mention. Clinton's praise of Ernesto Zedillo's government last
for catching Gutierrez was the first time in sixteen months the president has
spoken publicly about drugs and Mexico. The president's determination to ignore
evidence to the contrary has been impressive. In October 1995, the last time he
spoke of drugs and Mexico, Clinton praised President Zedillo's "major reform of
Mexican law enforcement." But, six months later, the State Department concluded
in its annual narcotics report that Mexico's "endemic corruption continued to
undermine both policy initiatives and law enforcement operations."
Clinton certified Mexico to receive foreign aid in 1996.
The poet and essayist Octavio Paz wrote that the gullibility of Americans
(including, presumably, American officials) is partly a matter of cultural
difference. Mexico, Paz said, is a country of masks. "The Mexican tells lies
because he delights in fantasy, or because he is desperate, or because he wants
to rise above the sordid facts of his life; the North American does not tell
lies," he wrote. "The North Americans are credulous."
Credulous, and also sensitive. Mexico, understandably touchy about
infractions against its sovereignty from the north, is deeply ambivalent
U.S. assistance and easily irritated by criticism. Shocking as it may be, one
reason President Clinton shies away from pointing out the Mexican
failure to police its borders with the U.S. is that he doesn't want to hurt its
feelings. "We're mindful of their sensitivity to overreaching by the United
States, and we're trying not to inflame it," one White House official
But cultural differences and exquisite manners are not the entire, or even
the primary, reason for the administration's blind eye. That, it appears, would
be money. In an administration devoted to trade above all, the truth about
Mexico is unwelcome. Decertifying Mexico would not only stop U.S. aid to the
country, straining relations badly, but it would also undermine the entire idea
of free trade with Mexico, an idea embodied in one of the Clinton
administration's greatest triumphs, the North American Free Trade Agreement. An
admission that Mexico has become the major exporter of drugs into the U.S.
raises questions of trade in general with Mexico. Mexico, which fears it
become a pariah were it decertified by the U.S., has lobbied hard against
contemplating the move. The president has complied. In 1995, he argued that
Mexican drug traffic proved the need for more trade with Mexico: " The stronger
our trade, the greater the well-being of all our people, the deeper our
cooperation, the better we will be able to fight together our common problems
like drugs and crime and pollution," he said. "It's mindboggling that Mexico
gets away with this," says Phil Jordan, a former head of the El Paso
Intelligence Center for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "But,
historically, they always have."
Over the last four years, with the help of corrupt Mexican officials and
myopic American officials, Mexico has become a narcotics superhighway to the
United States, delivering more methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana to this
country than any other nation. As the Mexican cartels have gained more and more
of the American market, they have grown bolder in their attempts to expand.
Formerly quiet, mundane trading towns like Eagle Pass, Texas, have become
of the narcotics interstate.
"They cross the river at dusk and wait for night before they move out," says
Ramiro Trevino, a supervisor for the U.S. Border Patrol. High on a rocky
above the Rio Grande, he searches the river with binoculars; "I've seen them
backpack marijuana ten to fifteen miles." Trevino was raised on the border, and
he can read the footprints he finds in the powdery brown soil like signs on a
highway. He can tell the difference between illegal aliens and marijuana
smugglers, at a glance, by the depth of their tracks. "Looks like we had some
backpackers here," he says, pointing to a brigade of deep boot prints, sunk
into the soil by up to a hundred pounds of marijuana. " Dopers," as Trevino
calls them, pack the bulky marijuana into a home trash compactor to maximize
Every night, as darkness falls across the Rio Grande, the same game of chase
and chance begins. Sensors planted by the Border Patrol electronically map
foot traffic. A night-vision camera stationed on a ridge above the river tracks
the emerging backpackers. The packers, having no idea they've been spotted,
alternately crouch and dart among the foliage. Using only their radios and
moonlight, the agents guide one another to their targets. One year ago,
Agent Jefferson Barr was closing in on four smugglers who were seen by the
night-vision camera dumping loads of marijuana over a fence. Barr and his
partner met two of them head-on. There was a struggle. Shots went off. "This is
where Jeff was killed," Trevino says quietly, standing before a wooden cross,
a clearing just a few hundred yards from the Rio Grande. Five hundred pounds of
marijuana were seized from the pasture where Barr was killed.
Barr's death was an example of the growing willingness of the Mexican dope
traders to use violence against U.S. law enforcement officials. In 1995,
were no recorded assaults against U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Del Rio
sector. In 1996, there were more than fifty. There is everywhere in the region
sense of immediate danger. Ranchers who live on rambling acreages, miles from
civilization, feel failed by law enforcement they thought could protect them.
An elderly rancher, whose house has been fired at, says, "We have no faith in
our government, whatsoever," to restore order along the border. The rancher
won't give his name because he worries about retaliation from the dope
on this side. "They know where we live, and my wife and I aren't safe," he
Bud Natus, a rancher who manages 2,200 acres of land, recalls the time he
surprised smugglers on what he calls "the combat zone," the pasture land
the river. One smuggler "was holding a rifle and told me he was gonna kill me,"
Natus says. At 6'3", and 250 pounds, Natus is not easily intimidated. But he
carries an assault rife, a shot gun and a 45-automatic in his pickup truck
whenever he goes near the river. "You never know who's gonna be lying in the
weeds waiting for you, so you best be careful," he warns. As soon as his
brother-in-law sells the land, Natus will move away. Driving along county
1021, south of Eagle Pass, it seems like every other place is up for sale.
Families are giving up and moving out because they feel so threatened by the
tons of drugs being smuggled in and the violence that accompanies that passage.
"It's ruining our way of life," says Natus. "This isn't America anymore; this
Mexico," says another rancher. Law enforcement officials worry the land up
sale will be bought by smugglers who will use it as private import-export
A visit to a Federal Judicial Police unit in Ciudad Juarez shows how
underequipped and undermotivated some Mexican law enforcement agents are. The
unit is the sole force in this city charged with counter-narcotics
At one o'clock in the morning, at a dusty roadblock outside the city, a group
agents are stopping every vehicle, fifty an hour, searching for drugs. A
policewoman paws through the bags of sleepy tourists aboard a bus from the
south, while a policeman unleashes a drug-sniffing dog around a line of trucks.
The agents aren't carrying radios, and their chief sleuth, the sniffer dog,
tired and dragging. He is one of only two dogs used for the 123 checkpoints
throughout the state of Chihuahua.
No drugs are found on this piercingly cold morning, but Commander Socrates
Herrera is very proud that his agents are at least looking. Herrera, head of
Federal Judicial Police in Juarez, says his people are often offered bribes
truckers at the roadblocks. He admits that men have tried to buy him at the
office after first knocking politely on the gate of his headquarters. "People
have offered us a million dollars," he says. They were turned down, he says
But, when Herrera is asked if the men who offered the million-dollar
were arrested, he says, "No, because they didn't have the money right there."
This turns out to be indicative of his approach. Herrera knows all about
in JuArez. Driving through the city, he points out picaderos, private galleries
for buying and shooting heroin. Asked why he doesn't shut them down, he says,
"It's not our jurisdiction." That would be up to the local police.
In fact, there is a widespread belief among the jaded and ill-served
of JuArez that neither police force can afford to close the picaderos; it would
cost them too much of the bribery income for which they compete. As Mexico's
anti-drug units are currently structured, it would seem impossible to escape
corruption. New recruits undergo six months of training with the army, then
they're put out on the street, often stationed far from their families in
spartan conditions: in bungalows with little furniture, or in barracks with
beds. Starting pay is $6,000 a year.
In this environment, the police are expected to resist a combination of
deadly threats and bribes that can run to hundreds of thousands of dollars. "
It's kind of like this," says Robert Nieves, a former chief of International
Operations for the DEA. "You're offered a bribe. If bribery doesn't work,
offered violence. And that violence will be exacted against you or your
members." In Mexico, the choice is called "plata o plomo," silver or lead.
The result is a breathtaking level of corruption. Twenty-eight percent of
Mexico's federal law enforcement has been fired for corruption in the last
three years. In the last year alone, the federal government has fired more than
900 Federal Judicial Police for suspected offenses that included theft,
extortion, guarding drug shipments--and even murder. The Clinton administration
applauded the firings because, according to a White House official, it showed
"the Mexicans realize there's a problem, and they are working toward change,
which is a long way from where they were two years ago. " But everyone involved
in the effort against the Mexican drug trade says there remains massive
corruption. One DEA agent whom I asked about corruption in Mexican law
enforcement pulled out a thick file full, he said, of information about
commanders still in power who are suspected by the U.S. of facilitating the
transport of drugs into this country. Former Mexican Attorney General Antonio
Lozano has estimated it would take fifteen years for Mexico's law enforcement
be completely cleansed of corruption.
Increased trade with Mexico cannot in and of itself end the drug traffic.
reason--a reason that the Clinton administration has yet to acknowledge-- is
that Mexico's drug corruption is so pervasive that legitimate trade with Mexico
is inextricably entangled with it. Because legitimate Mexican businesses
drug money, and because so many apparently legitimate Mexican businessmen and
politicians are secretly involved in the drug trade, "you sometimes have
Embassy personnel in Mexico negotiating trade deals with a person who is also
facilitating major drug trafficking into the U.S.," as one senior American
enforcement official told me. Pushing trade with some politicians and
leaders may only augment the influence of those who are aiding the drug
And because a healthy portion of Mexico's economy already depends on the
illegal narcotics trade ($27 to $30 billion, according to the Justice
Department) drug money fuels industries and distorts competition. It is not
equal trade partnership when American business people are "competing against
enterprises that have extraordinary access to illegal capital," says Lupsha.
"Clinton does not fully realize that it will be unfair for any American
to do business in Mexico with this level of systemic corruption."
During President Clinton's visit in April, Mexico will be pushing for free
truck passage across our border, a provision of NAFTA that was postponed
indefinitely by the U.S. mainly because of safety concerns. In turn, Clinton
will celebrate the expansion of trade with Mexico as a boon to the American
economy, even though Mexico exported $10 billion more in goods to the U.S. last
year than the U.S. did to Mexico. What he should do is take the opportunity
point out that, at the time the U.S. opened its borders, the drug traffickers
rushed in. Now the U.S. is running a remarkable deficit with Mexico, not only
legitimate trade, but in the American lives being lost in the consumption of
drugs delivered by the relentless drive of the cartels down a stretch of
that is protected by some of Mexico's finest law enforcement.
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