Public Anger Spurs Mexican Anti-Drug Efforts

Under pressure, Salinas forms elite force and hints at new laws to shore up credibility

THE "Wanted" posters are all over Mexico. Five mugs of Mexico's most notorious drug lords are plastered to light posts, walls, and public buildings. A $5 million reward is promised for information leading to their arrest.

Never before has Mexico offered so much, so publicly.

It is a measure of the determination - some say desperation - of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to strike a blow against narcotraffickers in the wake of the shooting of Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo. On May 24, Cardinal Posadas and seven other Mexicans were gunned down in the parking lot of the Guadalajara airport by members of two rival drug cartels.

The public shock and outrage over Posadas's brutal death has shaken confidence in the Salinas administration and may provoke a change in Mexico's drug-fighting strategy, analysts say.

"Guadalajara makes us see with total clarity the violence that accompanies narcotrafficking. We knew it before. But now it's out in the open, and people are scared. They're clamoring for security," says Maria Celia Toro, a Colegio de Mexico expert on the drug war.

An estimated 10,000 people converged on the Plaza de la Liberacion in downtown Guadalajara last Sunday in a protest dubbed the "March of Silence." Media reports stated that apart from placards denouncing violence and the intermittent chant of "Justice, Justice, Justice," the throng walked through the streets in profound silence.

President Salinas is responding to the public's outrage by calling for a "grand national crusade" against the drug traffickers who "corrupt and rot everything they touch." Salinas announced on June 2 that a new elite antinarcotics law enforcement unit would be formed. He also called upon justice officials to develop constitutional and legal reforms by the end of the month to give authorities "better legal instruments" in their fight.

Mexico is what the latest United States State Department Narcotics Report calls "a major source country" for heroin and marijuana. And, an estimated 50-70 percent of the South American cocaine sold in the US is shipped through Mexico.

While the State Department report praises Mexico's "vigorous" and "comprehensive" antidrug campaign, it notes that "corruption remains deep-rooted," and Mexico's money-laundering laws are weak. Controls on chemicals used in the manufacture of illicit drugs are also said to be lax.

Salinas has given no details about what reforms are likely, but analysts expect the government to move quickly to close legal loopholes that facilitate money laundering here. There are rumors that Salinas is also considering instituting the death penalty for convicted drug traffickers.

"Traitors" within the Mexican police are a major problem, Mexico's Attorney General Jorge Carpizo admits. In the Guadalajara slaying, 13 people have been arrested to date, including six Mexican police officers.

But even with an elite force, Mexico will not stop the violence or the cocaine from passing through Mexico to the US, says Ms. Toro. She argues that the surge in drug-related violence (at least three major gun battles have occurred in recent months) is due to the successes of Salinas policy.

Since Salinas took office, several key narcotics kingpins have been jailed. "The violence is a function of the success. When you knock off the top drug lords, there are power vacuums. The process of filling them is violent, as gangs square off against one another," Toro says.

INDEED, Toro believes that if the Mexican government decides to mount a "frontal assault" on drug traffickers, more violence will ensue. She doubts Salinas will adopt that course of action. "Given the choice between more violence and more cocaine, the voting public would prefer more cocaine quietly passing through Mexico," she says.

The shooting of Posadas has not only raised fears about public safety, but it has damaged the Mexican government's credibility. The government issued conflicting explanations about what happened, and federal and local police have been accused of protecting the drug-cartel members.

"Salinas presented an image of a powerful president in charge of everything. Nothing escaped his eye or his will," says Lorenzo Meyer, a historian. "But Guadalajara shows that this `all-powerful president' with an all-powerful state cannot do what is the basic duty of a liberal state: Provide security. Control the police."

Salinas is walking "a very delicate line" in trying to regain the upper hand, agrees Denise Dresser, a political scientist at the Mexican Autonomous Technical Institute.

Professor Dresser believes Salinas will either take a harder line in the drug fight or simply back away from the problem. She notes the Mexican presidential elections will be held in mid-1994. "He may figure, as a lame duck, it's best to toss this one into the lap of his successor."

Either way, Guadalajara could influence the presidential succession, Dresser says. It may open the way for more conservative hard-liners in the next Cabinet. "Salinas will want someone who can deal with this problem, someone with connections to the old guard, to the security forces."

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