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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 General 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 from 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, they 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 worried 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 Secretary 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 intelligence 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 DEA, says there were no suspicions about Gutierrez before the charges were announced. "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." He 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 the president to identify countries that produce and export drugs and then to determine whether or not their governments are making progress in stemming the 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 years 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. President Clinton said he found the Gutierrez scandal "deeply troubling," then characteristically praised the Mexican government for making the arrest. But, as the story stayed on the front page into the week in which the administration had to decide on certification, the tone changed. On February 25, while the Mexican government was frantically signaling better intentions by dismissing dozens of suspect incd employees, Thomas Constantine, head of the DEA, was testifying to 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 away, The New York Times reported on its front page that the White House was for the 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 the 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 trafficking has burrowed into Mexican society, infiltrating and subverting government at all levels, and of how determinedly the Clinton administration has declined to publicly deal with it. Prior to last week, the Mexican military was thought to be the one arm of the state relatively untainted by drug corruption, at least in 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 party 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 week 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." Nevertheless, 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 about U.S. assistance and easily irritated by criticism. Shocking as it may be, one reason President Clinton shies away from pointing out the Mexican government's 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 explained.

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 would become a pariah were it decertified by the U.S., has lobbied hard against even 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 part 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 cliff 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 hard 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 their loads.

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 the 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 the moonlight, the agents guide one another to their targets. One year ago, Senior 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, in 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, there 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 a 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 dealers on this side. "They know where we live, and my wife and I aren't safe," he says.

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 along 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 now 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 road 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 is Mexico," says another rancher. Law enforcement officials worry the land up for sale will be bought by smugglers who will use it as private import-export centers.

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 operations. At one o'clock in the morning, at a dusty roadblock outside the city, a group of 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, is 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 the Federal Judicial Police in Juarez, says his people are often offered bribes by 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 proudly.

But, when Herrera is asked if the men who offered the million-dollar bribes 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 drugs 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 citizens 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 bunk 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, you're offered violence. And that violence will be exacted against you or your family 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 to be completely cleansed of corruption.

Increased trade with Mexico cannot in and of itself end the drug traffic. The 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 launder drug money, and because so many apparently legitimate Mexican businessmen and politicians are secretly involved in the drug trade, "you sometimes have U.S. 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 law enforcement official told me. Pushing trade with some politicians and business leaders may only augment the influence of those who are aiding the drug runners.

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 an 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 trying 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 to 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 in 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 highway that is protected by some of Mexico's finest law enforcement.

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