Efforts to Dust the Cocaine Off Its Hands Elude Mexico

Drug czar is charged with protecting major trafficker

What if Gen. Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton's drug czar, were found to be in the pocket of high-powered drug dealers?

The equivalent of that scenario was revealed to be the case in Mexico this week. Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo was fired from his post in charge of Mexico's antidrug fight and arrested for what Mexican officials say was a longstanding involvement with the country's most powerful drug trafficker.

The scandal comes on the heels of fresh revelations suggesting the deep penetration of drug lords into the highest levels of government.

The Gutierrez Rebollo affair is particularly significant because it reveals the degree to which drug corruption has penetrated the military. In recent years, the miltary has been increasingly dragged into Mexico's antidrug effort, specifically because it was thought to be the one institution immune to the lucrative temptations of the drug trade.

The Mexican defense secretary's revelations about General Gutierrez Rebollo and at least two subordinates are also going to make it more difficult for Washington to put a seal of approval on Mexico's cooperation in the international antidrug effort.

The firing came 10 days before Mr. Clinton must submit to Congress a report card on how drug-supplying countries are cooperating with the US in the antinarcotics battle. The "certification" process has already drawn harsh comments from various members of Congress. They say the White House is playing hardball with Colombia, which Clinton decertified last year, but softball with Mexico - where drug corruption is looking to be just as bad - for purely political reasons.

In response to the scandal, Washington and Mexico City postponed a briefing, set for today, to air the accomplishments the binational antidrug effort has garnered over the past year.

The charges against Gutierrez Rebollo, named to his post in December, also place a dark cloud of doubt over Mexican narcotics intelligence. Mexican officials now say Gutierrez Rebollo used previous posts to protect Amado Carrillo Fuentes, head of the Juarez drug cartel and known as "lord of the skies," for his use of jets to ferry huge amounts of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and into the US. At the same time, Gutierrez Rebollo was diligent in operations against other Mexican drug cartels, taking actions that pleased both his military superiors and Mr. Carrillo Fuentes.

The scandal came only days after the Mexico City weekly Proceso and the daily Jornada divulged documents from a Houston federal court implicating former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, members of his family including jailed brother Raul, and other former Mexican officials in drug trafficking.

The attorney for Mr. Salinas, who is in exile in Ireland, said this week that his client plans to sue the witnesses in the US who gave testimony, plus the FBI, US Drug Enforcement Administration, and Mexican officials for the dissemination of what he called untrue and defaming information.

The accusations against the former president and other former top officials followed another report, originating this time from San Diego, that hundreds of Mexican law-enforcement officials are on the payroll of the Tijuana cartel.

The seemingly nonstop revelations linking officials with the drug trade are driving an already disgusted public deeper into cynicism over drug-related corruption. "All this corruption, it's like a snowball; you don't know how far it's going to go or how big it's going to get," says Enrique Sanchez, a fruit vendor in Mexico City.

"It's so shameful for Mexico, all this involvement in drugs and at all levels," says Martha Gutierrez, a private elementary school administrator. "The good part I see is that it's all coming out, so maybe we can end it."

It's this last, more optimistic comment that President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon was looking for when the decision was made to be public about the drug chief's cocaine-dusted hands. "The damage would be greater if we tried to hide the crimes because of a supposed fear of scandal," Mr. Zedillo said in a statement, adding that the firing of Gutierrez Rebollo confirms his determination to pursue all criminals "irrespective of social status, or political or economic hierarchies."

Mexico City political analyst Sergio Sarmiento said Wednesday in the daily Reforma that the revelations only provide further evidence that "Mexico is losing the war against drugs." But lest there be any holier-than-thou comments from north of the border, he added that the US, with its extensive drug-production and distribution rings, its drug-money laundering, and drug-related crime, is losing the war as well.

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