Unfriendly Fire in Mexico

December 20, 1991

Bizarre facts have come to light after an aborted drug raid in southeastern Mexico ended with the deaths of seven Mexican law-enforcement officers. The agents, tracking suspected cocaine smugglers flying a light plane from Colombia with U.S. assistance, landed on a makeshift airstrip near Veracruz Nov. 7 and were attacked by Mexican army troops.

The Mexican Defense Ministry and attorney general issued an immediate joint statement that the shooting was all a mistake, but a Mexican investigating panel now says the soldiers' commander was at fault. A second statement five days later said the soldiers had fired from 400 yards away, after the law enforcement officers started shooting at them, but videotapes provided by two U.S. surveillance planes which followed the action with heat-sensing cameras showed otherwise.

Not only did two agents survive, playing dead in a ditch, but the U.S. tapes showed the gunplay lasted more than two hours, during which one agent apparently was beaten to death. The Mexican army commander, Gen. Alfredo Moran Acevedo, twice disregarded phone warnings his forces were firing on government agents.

Were the troops and the agents really on the same side? The agents all died after Gen. Acevedo arrived with re-enforcements. Some in the U.S. Congress, no doubt remembering the abduction and murder of U.S. drug enforcement agent Enrique Camarena by Mexican police, wonder what really went down. Apparently, so do some of Mexico's top authorities. Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has made drug enforcement a top priority during his first three years in office and Mexican and U.S. officials say inter-agency cooperation will continue. Meanwhile, as with the killing of Agent Camarena, some Mexican officials are pushing the theme of infringement on Mexico's sovereignty by the U.S. drug agents who had assisted the Mexican probe.

That smacks of an attempt to build a smoke-screen to avoid dealing with embarrassing questions about what the Mexican army was really doing at the landing site. The real smugglers disappeared, leaving 800 pounds of cocaine behind, while the soldiers shot it out with the outgunned agents. Corruption in the uniformed ranks is an ugly possibility that cannot be dispelled except by a full accounting.

The Bush administration recently asked the Congress for $24 million for helicopters to help a Mexican police unit's anti-drug campaign. But until accounts are clear about the Veracruz shootout and any wrongdoers exposed and dealt with, adding those choppers to nine already delivered from the Pentagon will be a hard sell in this country.

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