Shining light on shadowy legal system

Mexico: Journalists here have exposed corrupt relationships between law enforcement authorities and drug gangs. But they pay a price for their vigilance.

July 04, 1999|By Rick Rockwell

IN LATE May, when Thomas Constantine announced he was stepping down as director of the Drug Enforcement Administration on July 1, he pointed his finger at the largest threat in the continuing drug war: Mexico's drug gangs.

"There has been explosive growth of criminal drug mafias from Mexico," he said. "We just turned around and they were everywhere: in New York, in Baltimore, in Atlanta. What is frustrating is that we know who the 20 to 25 top drug dealers in Mexico are, but the Mexican law enforcement is so weak, it seems unable even to find them, never mind arrest them or extradite them."

Many of the drugs distributed in Baltimore's streets, and the streets of other U.S. cities, pass through the hands of Mexico's gangs.

In 1998, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy reported that 59 percent of the cocaine processed in South America was funneled to the United States through Mexico. Throughout the past decade, as Colombia's cartels decided to pay Mexico's smugglers with drugs instead of cash, the power of Mexico's gangs grew.

Law enforcement authorities agree Mexico's gangs also provide the bulk of heroin and marijuana on America's streets. If that is the sad statistical picture of Mexico's contribution to the U.S. drug problem, the view from Mexico is worse.

In Mexico, where a complex set of law enforcement groups exists presumably to keep order, citizens find themselves wondering which police officers, prosecutors and judges are on the payroll of the drug gangs. Besides questioning their legal institutions, Mexicans also turn frequently to the growing ranks of investigative journalists to uncover the corruption that is rife throughout their system.

But the drug war is also testing the old adage about the strength of the pen vs. the sword. Given the example of border town San Luis Rio Colorado, the sword seems to be a fairly lethal match.

Articles revealing the inner workings of the border drug gangs and their corrupt connections, inspired by two editors in this small town, are more than balanced by the assassination of one editor and continuing harassment of the other.

Conditions in San Luis Rio Colorado are so bad for crusading writers that New York's Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent a letter to Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo last month, requesting special protection for Jesus Barraza, the editor of the weekly Pulso.

Patricio Navia of CPJ called Barraza a courageous editor for maintaining his publication despite threats "in a town that is a hot spot for drug dealing on the border." The saga of violence threatening freedom of expression and the rule of law in this town, not far from Arizona, stretches back more than two years.

In 1997, Benjamin Flores Gonzalez was the editor leading the charge against corruption and drugs at the local newspaper La Prensa. In his column, Flores wrote about drug gangs in the Mexican state of Sonora. He not only linked the gangs in Sonora to an international network of drug traffickers, but he also revealed the slime of corruption the gangs trailed through Sonora's judicial system.

Flores questioned the conduct of a judge who had freed Jaime Gonzalez Gutierrez, a drug dealer accused of shooting a policeman. Judges in Sonora were outraged by the revelations. Soon Flores found himself in jail, forced to spend time behind bars for his blunt columns.

The judges used Mexico's criminal defamation law to pressure the editor and make him pay for revealing the truth. But Flores managed to use the complex Mexican judicial system not only to win release from jail, but to obtain a special writ that prevented his arrest on similar charges. After Flores' release from jail, he found that he had angered more than the local judiciary. Eventually, the drug lords came knocking.

Machine-gun attack

On July 15, 1997, Flores was gunned down on the steps of his newspaper office. The hit men used a machine gun in the attack, but the final shots were delivered by a pistol pressed against Flores' head. After international coverage of the killing, police eventually connected at least seven men to the crime, including Gonzalez and his two brothers, drug dealers featured in some of Flores' columns. Some of the other men accused of the killing had originated some of the defamation complaints against the slain editor.

Barraza stepped in to take Flores' place at the helm of La Prensa. He traveled to Mexico City in the fall of 1997 to speak at a special conference of Mexican journalists, convened by CPJ, to address the violence meant to stifle free expression.

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