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MEXICO
Military offensive
John Ross
2/24/2003
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Army recruited to clean up Fox’s war on drugs.

For five days this January, the men who had driven the Frutas Flores rig up from Guadalajara with four tons of marijuana under the oranges, sweated out their fate in the lock-up of the Tijuana office of the Federal Special Prosecutor´s Office for Drug Crimes (FEADS). With the dope safely under lock and key, FEADS Commander Jose Miguel Uribe attempted to extort US$2 million from the load´s owner in exchange for the release of the men and the marijuana.

Then, on Jan. 11, a half dozen soldiers pulled up to the FEADS compound, triggering alarm among the agents inside. Uribe, six agents, and the marijuana were carted off to the nearest military camp while the army secured the FEADS’ now former premises.

"Seven imbeciles have nearly wrecked two years of hard work," said Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha, a general who once served as chief military prosecutor. Macedo de la Concha had just given orders for army troops to raid 17 FEADS offices in 13 states from Tijuana on the northern border to Tapachula in the South.

The army, Macedo de la Concha explained, had raided the FEADS offices to secure crucial files and communications systems before agents on the payrolls of the cartels could tip off their bosses. The attorney general fired 130 agents outright and hauled another 200 up to Mexico City to be questioned — a total of half the FEADS workforce.

The FEADS is the fifth anti-drugs agency to suffer the same fate as the Direction of Federal Security (DFS), which was closed in 1989 after its director was caught selling agency badges to drug gangs. Now Macedo de la Concha has announced the creation of the SIEDO (Subprosecutor for Specialized Investigations of Organized Crime), which will work in tandem with the Federal Agency of Investigation, said to be modeled on the US FBI.

But a hike in drug war responsibilities for the military is opposed by many generals. "The military is charged by the Constitution to defend and protect the nation — not to fight the narcos," argued retired General Luis Garfias. Nonetheless, the last three Mexican presidents — Carlos Salinas (1988-94) through Vicente Fox — have declared drugs a national security issue, thereby justifying military intervention.

Critics point out that the military is no more trustworthy than the police. Last year, generals Mario Acosta Chaparro and Francisco Quiroz were handed 40-year prison terms for protecting drug traffickers. In another case, 600 soldiers based in Sinaloa were detained on charges that they had provided protection for local drug lords. Forty tested positive for drugs and the whole battalion was subsequently disbanded. Furthermore, 14 former members of the military were recently identified by Macedo de la Concha’s office as forming "the operating force" of the revived Gulf Cartel under the direction of Oseal Cárdenas, now the nation´s most wanted drug lord.

Growing drugs has always been a fallback for Mexican farmers when times are tough and, thanks to new trade agreements, times are tough. With the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) barriers now reduced to zero for 45 basic agricultural products (LP, Jan. 15, 2003), the anticipated avalanche of imports will drive many more farmers to drug cropping.

Mexico´s new drug cartels look for new markets with new products on its neighbor’s selling floor. While marijuana remains traditional, it is a bulky product to move and sales are challenged by US domestic production. Demand for heroin — Mexican poppy fields produce about a third of the US supply — remains stable, but Colombian cocaine, for which Mexico serves as a "trampoline" onto the US market, has diminished consumer popularity.

Drugs have become more of a Mexican problem in recent years. As the clamp on the US border has tightened, drugs stay in Mexico longer and invariably leak out onto the street. "Picaderos", heroin shooting galleries, are ubiquitous on the border in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez and crack cocaine is now common in the big cities of central Mexico.

Following Macedo de la Concha’s Tijuana raid, Fox praised the attorney general, pinpointing him as a key player in his administration´s vow to combat official corruption.

"We will continue to clean up the attorney general´s office to its deepest core," Fox said. "This won´t be the only case; there are others. If we go after each and every member of any police force we will ensure that there´s no collusion with organized crime, that there´s no corruption or dishonesty."

Fox´s crackdown on drug lords and corrupt police has been considered one of the major successes of his administration. Critics, however, claim that even with the intense prosecution of drug-related crimes, the attorney general has been no more effective than his predecessors. "Drug traffickers have continued to operate with impunity throughout the country during the two years that Macedo de la Concha has been in office," said the weekly Epoca. "But the attorney general himself has said that the fight is just beginning."


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