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Letters from Mexico

Stan Gotlieb

Carlos Salinas de Gortari, in the ashcan of history. Part of a demonstration in the zocalo of Oaxaca, October 1966. Sign reads "Deposit here: political corruption, bosses and gun thugs, narcopolitics and those who sell the national heritage". Photography by Diana Ricci

If stated intentions made it so, Mexico would be the most perfect democracy in world history. Its people would be well fed and educated, its natural resources wisely developed, its environment pristine and its narcotraffickers imprisoned in clean well-lighted places where they would receive no more privileges than does the poorest peasant.

If what we read in slogans, polemic, news leaks and public relations spin doctors contains only the truth, Bill Clinton, Carlos Salinas and Boris Yeltsin are misunderstood philanthropists whose only care is for the betterment of humankind.

Unfortunately, experience leads me and, I would guess, a great many of you, to view the promises and pronouncements of the high and mighty through a skeptical, not to say cynical, lens. In that context, I believe I am to be forgiven if I do not stand up and cheer at the latest announcement by the government of Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo: that the current National Institute for Drug Control is being scrapped, and a brand new, untainted and incorruptible agency created to replace it.

You may recall that revelations in the early months of 1997, immediately preceding the U.S. administration's certification of Mexico as a "good" partner in the "war against drugs", exposed Mexico's "anti-drug czar", General Gutierrez Rebollo, as having been on the payroll of Mexico's biggest drug smuggler. You may also recall that a few other high ranking Mexican military officers were subsequently charged with smuggling arms and protecting drug shipments. Embarrassed by these charges, the Zedillo administration is being forced to rethink its recent reliance on the military when it comes to civilian law enforcement.

Of course, such revelations are nothing new. Military units have long been a part of the drug supply pipeline. One hears rumors that in some locales the Army grows marijuana and poppies for export. Struggles for power and profits between the Federal Prosecutor's office (PGR) are old hat as well, as witness the periodic gun battles between the two, when one is guarding and the other attempting to hijack, drug shipments.

In mid-April, two weeks before President Clinton's much-publicized visit to Mexico on May 5, U.S. anti-drug czar McCaffrey praised Mexico for its prodigious and successful efforts to improve its record on drug interdiction. This amazing turnaround came scant weeks after the U.S. congress debated decertifying Mexico over its poor record in this regard.

A few days later, Zedillo revealed his "new" anti-drug superagency. No military are present. Instead, it will be staffed by police (as it was when Zedillo fired the leadership and replaced them with the "incorruptible" military) -- but these police will be trained by the DEA and the FBI (and therefore, in some strange twist of logic, less corrupt). A new drug czar will be named, and he will report directly to the head of the PGR (as did the old chief). You may recall that a recent high official in the PGR named Ruiz Massieu just got 8 million dollars lifted from his Texas bank account as "drug money", and is currently facing charges related to his corrupt past in both the U.S. and Mexico.

In the midst of all these trumpets and flourishes, nobody here is fooled for an instant. When smugglers buy U.S. Customs agents, Border Patrol officers, police, judges and political bigwigs, who are paid well to be honest, what can one expect of an underpaid Mexican policeman living in an atmosphere which accepts corruption as a fact of life? When all the might and money of the U.S. government cannot stop drugs from flowing in to satisfy the demands of U.S. addicts, how can anyone expect the citizenry of a poor country to forsake the windfall profits offered by supplying that demand?

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Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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