Colombian Drug Trade Makes Border Run

Northward migration of cartels could strain US-Mexico ties

Control of the Western Hemisphere's drug-trafficking operations is shifting from Colombia to Mexico - with potentially huge implications for US-Mexico relations.

After two years of investigations, sting operations, property searches, confiscations, and negotiations, Colombia has put the masterminds of the country's infamous Cali drug cartel behind bars. The result is that the control center and the majority of the cartel's distribution operation - considered responsible for shipping up to 80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States - have shifted to Mexico, Colombian officials responsible for the country's antidrugs fight say.

At first glance it's a claim worthy of skepticism since it obviously serves Colombia's interests.

After years of being stigmatized internationally as a drug-producing and shipping haven and experiencing ever-deteriorating relations with the United States, Colombia would like nothing better than to be able to say, "We're not the focus of the problem any more." Besides, not even Colombian officials would argue that drug production and transportation are not still a serious problem in Colombia.

What makes the "gone to Mexico" theory significant is that it is also supported by independent drug-trade analysts here - as well as by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

The implications of such a shift are significant. If evidence continues to grow that Mexico is turning into the master distribution point for the hemisphere's illegal drug operations, it could mean rocky times ahead for US-Mexico relations.

Drugs have already become a surprise big issue in the US presidential campaign, with Bob Dole suggesting a militarization of the Southern border to guard against illegal drugs and immigration. It seems likely that regardless of who sits in the White House for the next four years, attention to drug interdiction will rise a few slots on the nation's priority list.

As part of a policy decision made two years ago to leave Mexico's internal antidrug operations in Mexican hands, the US has retreated from heavy involvement in that fight. But the US could pressure harder to resume a key role within Mexico, a move that would ruffle Mexico's sensitive sovereignty feathers.

Top Colombian antinarcotics officials say they have shared information on shifts in the control of the cocaine, heroin, and marijuana trade with Mexican officials, but claim their Mexican counterparts don't want to hear it.

"We are seeing, with the disorganization and weakening of the Colombian cartels, a strengthening and expanding role of the Mexican cartels," says Luis Montenegro Rinc, assistant director of Colombia's National Police and second in command in the country's antidrug fight. "Given our experience we are passing on this information as an alert to Mexico, but Mexico doesn't want to accept it."

A drug-trade shift northward to Mexico is not one of Washington's favorite topics, but DEA officials acknowledge that evidence points in that direction. "The Cali cartel has been pretty hard hit," says one official. "What we're seeing is that the activity now seems to be controlled by a few families in Mexico," he says.

Colombian drug-trade analysts say their research shows that imprisonment of the Cali cartel leaders has led to a decentralization of drug production and distribution in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, with a greater concentration of coordination and control in Mexico.

"There has always been a coordination between Colombia and Mexico, but the Mexican groups had already been taking over more of the responsibilities and management of the trade for themselves and that trend is now accelerating," says Alejandro Reyes, a drug-trade specialist at Colombia's National University in Bogot.

Some of Colombia's new and rising drug lords are focusing their attention on the ascendant heroin trade, officials here acknowledge, but Mexico's tentacles are reaching that business as well. "Most of the [heroin-producing] poppies being processed in Peru right now belong to the Mexicans," says Sergio Uribe, another Colombian drug specialist. "The Mexican traffickers assume this role easily because they already had a leg up [from their relations with the Colombians]," he adds, "and because, face it, they're at the doorway" to the US market.

Recent intense drug-related violence in Tijuana on Mexico's border is another indication of important power shifts within Mexican drug-trafficking operations that are partly related to larger hemispheric power shuffles, the DEA says. "The increased violence is sending signals about power struggles [among Mexican traffickers] attributable to the loss of power hitting Cali," says the DEA official.

Over recent months at least seven Mexican officials working on Tijuana drug cases have been killed, including those who died in two spectacular assassinations of Tijuana officials in Mexico City. Literally dozens of police officers and low-level traffickers have also been killed in what US and Mexican investigators say is a merciless turf war among Tijuana's Arellano Felix family, which has controlled the Tijuana-San Diego drug corridor for more than a decade, other established trafficking organizations on the US-Mexican border, and newer, smaller traffickers trying to carve out a piece of the lucrative trade.

Most investigators say corruption among Mexico's police and judicial ranks is an important element in Tijuana's turf war, though Mexican officials are reluctant to acknowledge it. "The corruption in Mexico is one reason the control of the drug trade is shifting there," says Mr. Rinc, "but that too is something the Mexicans don't much like to talk about."

On the other hand, Mexican Attorney General Lozano Graca recently fired hundreds of Mexican judicial police, mostly on grounds of corruption.

For now, especially with the US presidential election campaign at full strength, the Clinton administration remains fully supportive of Mexico's drug interdiction efforts. Last week US Attorney General Janet Reno repeated her support for a Mexican antidrug effort she said was gradually but progressively chalking up successes. And most observers contend that Mr. Lozano and other uncorrupted high-ranking Mexican officials are pushing hard to crack Tijuana's Arellano Felix organization.

But even if Washington decides Mexico is a growing problem in the drug-interdiction fight, it won't be so easy for the US to single out its southern neighbor the way it has Colombia, Colombian analysts contend.

Citing the North American Free Trade Agreement, a 2,000-mile-long border, and complex and intimate social and cultural ties, Mr. Reyes says, "Mexico is a very different strategic problem for the US. It's really more of a domestic, internal problem, as if were dealing with California or Texas."

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