Mexico declares war against drug traffickers

President Fox's crusade is part of a promised effort toward national renewal.

Promising more resources and fresh law-enforcement battalions, Mexican President Vicente Fox has declared a "war without mercy" against drug trafficking.

Everyone has heard that before. But this time there are signs that someone from the opposing camp is listening.

First, the governor of the drug-riddled northern-border state of Chihuahua, who had spent the past year railing against corruption and lack of will in the national government's antinarcotics effort, was shot Jan. 17 by a former policewoman. Two days later, one of Mexico's most notorious drug traffickers escaped from prison with inside help.

"They scored two goals against us, but this is just the beginning," Mr. Fox said last week.

In that statement, Fox contradicted Chihuahua state law-enforcement officials, who had insisted that Victoria Loya, the ex-policewoman who shot Gov. Patricio Martinez Garcia in the state capitol at short range, was mentally ill and acting alone. Loya had told investigators she heard voices telling her to shoot Gov. Martinez. But most political analysts and drug-trade investigators agree with Fox. "This was a message to Fox: 'You're moving into dangerous territory,' " says Ciudad Juarez political scientist and writer Samuel Schmidt.

Even before announcing his "crusade" last Wednesday, Fox had sent fresh soldiers or federal police into Juarez and Tijuana, across the US-Mexico border from San Diego, as well as Culiacan, Sonora - three hotspots of drug trade and violence.

Gov. Martinez continues to recuperate from the head wounds he suffered in the attack, and the shooter has already been handed a prison sentence.

In his first comments after the attack, Martinez said he didn't think he had any enemies. But Martinez had used his office to repeatedly attack corruption and collaboration between officials and drug-trafficking organizations.

Earlier this month Martinez publicly condemned the previous federal government's weak response to a revelation that the top posting in the federal attorney general's district office in Juarez had been "bought" for half a million dollars.

The Martinez assassination attempt was followed by the Jan. 19 escape of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from a Jalisco "high-security" prison. Mr. Guzman, whose 1995 arrest was hailed as a coup by American law enforcement officials, was allowed to leave prison regularly and had steady access in prison to drugs, liquor, and female visitors, according to an investigator with the National Human Rights Commission, Jose Antonio Bernal. Prison guards who cooperated with Guzman's special treatment were paid well to facilitate his "furloughs," prison employees have since revealed.

Guzman may have decided to escape because Fox's announced crackdown on corruption threatened to end his privileges, Mr. Bernal says.

Observers say the Fox campaign may partly stem from Fox's awareness that drug violence and related corruption have begun to chip away at hopes for a "new Mexico" that engulfed the country after his July 2 election.

Fox's victory broke 71 years of one-party presidential rule in Mexico. Ensuing changes in law-enforcment hierarchies have disrupted longstanding lucrative relationships between drug organizations and cooperating officials, analysts say.

The potential undermining of Fox's "national renewal" is one reason Fox has attacked the drug lords head on, analysts say.

Without such a strong offensive, the crescendo of drug-gang violence could lead Mexicans to begin doubting their new leader on other issues.

"Fox came in with the high optimism that might be expected in such a historic political change, and he has kept expectations strong with a lot of campaign-like marketing," says Esther Chavez Cano, a prominent women's rights activist in Ciudad Juarez. "But this string of events has people wondering if things aren't turning badly. Those doubts could open the door to reservations about Fox's approach to other issues," she adds.

Others say Fox may be scoring points for tackling violence and corruption.

With the Martinez shooting, "we headed down the same path as with Colosio," says Juarez analyst Schmidt, referring to the 1994 assassination in Tijuana of ruling-party presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. Shortly before his assassination, Mr. Colosio had given a signature speech on fighting the Mexican political system's web of corruption.

Officials have repeatedly concluded that Colosio assassin Mario Aburto acted alone, but few Mexicans believe that version.

Martinez's attacker "Victoria Loya might as well be Mario Aburto's twin, for all the similarities between the two," says Juarez economist and popular radio talk show host Javier Navarro Lucio. The similarities, including the two attackers' psychological profiles and the cheap revolvers each said they bought from unknown individuals to carry out the attacks, are spurring conclusions that powers upset with reformers like Mr. Colosio and Martinez are behind the acts, Mr. Navarro says.

While Navarro says his radio listeners haven't shown any noticeable loss of faith in Fox, he adds, "That could change if Fox starts hurting border residents' economic interests with his taxation reforms or with some crackdown in Customs on the household purchases families are bringing back from the US side."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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