Mexico Polishes Image With US

Arrest and extradition of top drug lord helps mend torn ties

BY capturing and turning over to American drug-enforcement authorities one of their country's top drug lords, Mexican officials in one swoop have stemmed the down-on-Mexico tide that has washed over the United States in recent months.

But as Colombia learned in 1995 with the arrests of the leaders of the Cali cocaine cartel, capturing some of the world's most sophisticated criminals neither ends their organization's illegal activity nor guarantees rescue of a country's smudged international image.

Still, Mexico has something to crow about. Juan Garcia Abrego, considered one of Mexico's top drug traffickers and since March 1995 on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's list of 10 most wanted criminals, was delivered to American federal officials in Houston Jan. 15 after his arrest by Mexican federal police near Monterrey, Mexico, on Jan. 14.

The arrest of Mr. Garcia Abrego - a US citizen born in Texas but with a long history of operating in Mexico - earned instant praise from US officials and was trumpeted by Mexican officials as proof of Mexico's dedication to fighting the drug-trafficking menace.

The arrest is ''a triumph for the government of Mexico and a blow to the international drug trade,'' said US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. Mexican Interior Minister Emilio Chuayffet said the arrest proved Mexico's ''determined and frontal effort'' against crime and official impunity in general and against the illegal drug trade in particular. The praise follows a rough year for Mexico in the US, where the recent economic crisis, corruption, and political assassinations have been fodder for anti-Mexico critics.

Garcia Abrego's organization, in Mexico dubbed the Gulf [of Mexico] Cartel, is considered responsible for the delivery of 30 percent of the cocaine reaching the US, plus sizable quantities of marijuana and heroin. US Drug Enforcement Agency officials estimate that Garcia Abrego delivered at least 100 tons of cocaine annually to US markets over the last 10 years, earning him annual revenues of more than $20 billion. Mexican officials consider him one of the principal partners of Colombia's Orejuela brothers, heads of the Cali cartel now in prison.

When placing him on the FBI list, United States Attorney General Janet Reno announced a $2 million reward for his capture, saying, ''He will be tracked down by authorities on both sides of the border.'' He was the first international drug trafficker placed on the list - and is said to have reveled in the distinction, at least initially.

Mexican authorities say the arrest was the result of several months of investigation in his base states of Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, plus states farther south in Mexico where he was battling to extend his influence.

In addition to trafficking in illegal drugs, Garcia Abrego was wanted for alleged money-laundering and a string of violent crimes across Mexico. Most of the estimated 100 crimes were believed committed in the name of consolidating his empire.

Mexican officials cite, for example, a 1993 machine-gun assault on a restaurant near Mexico City where the man now considered Mexico's No. 1 drug trafficker, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, was dining with his family. Mr. Carrillo Fuentes and his family escaped, but three bodyguards and a diner were killed.

Carrillo Fuentes is thought to have taken over much of Garcia Abrego's territory and trade, especially as the hunted Garcia Abrego sought to evade the glare of the FBI listing.

Some Mexican analysts, even while praising the Garcia Abrego capture, hold up Carrillo Fuentes's rise as proof that someone will always be there to take over, as long as a lucrative market like that for drugs exists. And they say the market and the appetite for drugs are something the US has failed to tackle seriously.

Mexico has made an ''impressive number'' of arrests of high-level drug traffickers over the past year,'' says prominent newspaper and television editorialist Sergio Sarmiento, ''but there will be no final victory [in the drug war] as long as consumption remains the same.''

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