Zedillo's Choice

Mexico's president must choose: accommodate the drug lords who control the government or reform the system -- and risk his own life.

The drug lords in Mexico may have been even more successful than the Italian Cosa Nostra or the Russian mafiya -- they are taking over the highest echelons of their country's legitimate government. The arrest last March of the brothers of two of the most prominent politicians in Mexico proves how high the cartels' influence reaches.

When President Ernesto Zedillo, an untested, Yale-educated economist, took office last December, he promised to fight the drug trade and reshape the judicial system. But how far is he willing to go -- and how far will the cartels and their political henchmen allow him to go? In the past two years, the Mexican drug cartels have apparently murdered several officials who challenged them, including a presidential candidate, the police chief investigating his death, a cardinal, and the number-two leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the governing party.

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Already, the drug cartels seem to be warning Zedillo off: On March 15, local police officers in Mexico City attempted to carjack his eldest son in broad daylight. But bodyguards traveling in separate cars intervened before shots were fired. And earlier this year, Zedillo's newly appointed federal police chief, who had promised to oust corrupt police officials, was gassed in his sleep and left brain damaged.

The drug cartels' stranglehold on Mexican democracy is a parody of a Quentin Tarantino film: Politicians betray politicians, municipal, state, and federal police officials point their guns at each other, and corruption is so deep you can't see bottom.

Former Mexican Federal Deputy Attorney General Eduardo Valle Espinosa resigned his official post in frustration in May of last year, claiming, "Nobody can outline a political project in which the heads of drug trafficking and their financiers are not included. Because if you do, you die."

In a March 12 statement to U.S. drug-enforcement authorities, Valle estimated that at least half of Mexico's federal police chiefs and attorney generals receive illegal payoffs from drug dealers. Bribes make police chief posts so lucrative, he said, that some candidates pay $1 to $2 million just to get hired.

What do the drug cartels buy with these bribes? Carte blanche to do as they wish -- and immunity to walk away from their crimes. A few examples:

  • On May 24, 1993, assassins connected with the powerful Tijuana cartel killed Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo and six others at the Guadalajara airport. With weapons stashed in carry-on luggage and without boarding passes, the gunmen then boarded a Tijuana-bound Aeromexico plane that had been held for 20 minutes for their arrival. Four state police officers were later accused of acting as the killers' bodyguards.
  • When he campaigned for the presidency, candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, the handpicked successor of then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was widely regarded as an honest reformer. This probably led drug traffickers and corrupt politicians to fear what he might do if he took office. He was killed at a Tijuana rally in March of last year. A few weeks later, the reformist Tijuana police chief who was investigating the possibility that state police had been involved in Colosio's murder was also assassinated.
  • This March, federal judicial agents tracking members of the Tijuana cartel pulled over a vehicle in the course of their investigation -- and found local police protecting cartel drug lords. The rain of gunfire that followed killed five. Later, a state police commander sympathetic to the cartel looked the other way as high-ranking arrested kingpins escaped.

When President Zedillo took office, he immediately vowed to stop the drug lords. Apparently not trusting anyone in the governing party (his own party), he appointed opposition party member Antonio Lozano Gracia attorney general and reopened the Colosio investigation.

On February 28 Lozano's investigators arrested Raul Salinas de Gortari, the former president's brother, on charges of having ordered and financed the assassination of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu (the second-ranking leader of the PRI) last September.

Then, still more shocking, on March 3 U.S. officials arrested former Deputy Attorney General Mario Ruiz Massieu, the brother of the slain leader and a former chief investigator in the case. Massieu was arrested in Newark, N.J., fleeing Mexico with a ticket to Madrid, more than $40,000 in cash, and $10 million more stashed in bank accounts. He was charged with obstructing his own investigation into his brother's murder and with collecting bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for protection.

After a short-lived attempt at a hunger strike to protest his brother Raul's innocence (and his own), Carlos Salinas has taken refuge in the U.S. Former government officials like Deputy Attorney General Valle are raising questions about the former president's secretary of communications and transportation, Emilio Gamboa Patron, and his minister of agriculture, billionaire Carlos Hank Gonzalez, whose son is widely reputed to have ties to the Tijuana drug cartel.

The remaining questions are: Will President Ernesto Zedillo follow Salinas' path, publicly condemning the drug cartels but turning a blind eye to their allies in his own Cabinet? Or will he -- at the risk of his own life -- pursue his investigations even if they lead to the highest levels of government?

As of this writing, it's too early to tell, but with events in Mexico shifting daily, the answer may not be long in coming.