Mexico's Drug Crusade Nets Police Officials

SINCE the killing of a Roman Catholic cardinal last month stunned Mexico, a revitalized crusade against narcotrafficking has so far produced a new crime-fighting agency, captured a drug kingpin, and is exposing a growing web of police complicity.

On Monday, former Mexico City police chief Santiago Tapia Aceves was arraigned on charges of accepting a $50,000 bribe, then releasing drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera. Mr. Guzman was reportedly arrested in 1991 for illegal possession of drugs and weapons. The current Mexico City police chief is also being investigated and two former high-ranking police officers are being sought in connection with the scandal.

Guzman was recaptured in Guatemala on June 9 after an intense manhunt. He is believed to be the target of a bungled "hit" by a rival Mexican drug cartel that resulted in the fatal shooting of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in Guadalajara.

Meanwhile, Mexico's Attorney General Jorge Carpizo MacGregor continues to clean house. Last week, Mr. Carpizo fired 67 federal agents suspected of illicit activities, including some top advisers and state commanders. Last weekend, Carpizo's office announced it was bringing criminal charges against three Supreme Court magistrates.

On June 16, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari created a new federal agency, the National Institute to Combat Drugs, to put all resources and law-enforcement efforts under one command.

"The institute is a good idea," comments Colegio de Mexico narcotics expert Celia Toro.

"It should help prevent the contamination [by narcotraffickers] from reaching to all parts of the attorney general's office," she says.

Despite what many analysts see as positive steps by the Salinas administration, the political fallout - particularly abroad - may be difficult to overcome.

"It's a terrible public relations setback," comments one United States official. "Salinas is trying to project an image of a developed country where law and order and democracy prevail," he says. "But that's not the image projected when you have narcotics gangs spraying each other in the streets and allegations of corrupt public servants."

And it may hurt prospects for ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). "Some US congressmen will use the cardinal's death to justify their "No" vote," the official adds.

Mr. Salinas's critics charge the latest antinarcotrafficking steps are solely motivated by NAFTA politics.

But political analyst Alfonso Zarate Flores says Salinas has both a domestic and international constituency to satisfy.

"The Posadas shooting put at risk two things Salinas has worked very hard to build: a closer relationship with the Catholic Church and the free trade agreement," he says.

There are dozens of conspiracy theories circulating about the cardinal's death that don't jibe with the official version that he was mistaken for Guzman.

The Mexican government admits the official version doesn't fit with the testimony of some witnesses. And, the gunmen suspected of killing Posadas are still loose.

A protest march is planned for Saturday. Yet, despite the public outcry, a poll taken last week shows Salinas's popularity rating has not fallen since the Guadalajara incident. It still hovers at about 55 to 60 percent.

Mr. Zarate speculates that the Mexican public doesn't see a corrupt police force as a major stain on Salinas's overall policy record. "Police corruption dates back for decades. Perhaps people see it as an unsolvable problem," he says.

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