Mexico's crackdown on criminals stymied by top agencies' disarray

Prosecutors and police often lose cases, adding to offenders' brazenness

May 11, 2001|By Ricardo Sandoval | Ricardo Sandoval,THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS

MEXICO CITY - Adan Amezcua, the "king of methamphetamines," was gloating after his arrest recently near Guadalajara in western Mexico.

It wasn't his first arrest, and Amezcua crowed that he would walk again, leaving frustrated prosecutors in his wake. Amezcua has reason to gloat.

Although Mexican authorities have managed to convict the brother of a former president on murder conspiracy charges and an army general linked to drug dealers, Mexico still has a poor record of nailing its high-profile criminals, legal analysts said.

The real failure in Mexico, they said, is the country's attorney general's office.

It's supposed to be the vanguard against organized crime and official corruption, but the agency is in disarray after years of corruption and poor management.

Its new administrators - assigned by reformist President Vicente Fox - said it will take years to repair the agency, known as the PGR in Spanish.

"The great fantasy is that corruption has ended," said Rafael Macedo de la Concha, who left his Mexican Army prosecutor's job in December to become Mexico's attorney general. "The great reality is that [corruption] is there, and we are working intensely. But there is much to do."

Indeed, the loss column for Mexican prosecutors is long. Just last week, prosecutors received more bad news.

Former Mexico City Mayor Oscar Villareal Espinosa, accused of misappropriating $45 million, learned that a judge barred prosecutors from jailing him when he returns from Nicaragua to face trial.

Fugitive banker Carlos Cabal Peniche may also skirt justice when he returns to Mexico from custody in Australia; prosecutors are scrambling to salvage a case being picked apart by judges.

Press reports last week hinted that Mario Villanueva may soon surrender to Mexican authorities because he's confident the government's case against him will also collapse. The former governor of Mexico's Caribbean state of Quintana Roo has been on the lam since the summer of 1998, when federal prosecutors revealed they were close to indicting him for aiding drug traffickers.

Even when they're in jail, Mexico's most notorious criminals are shockingly close to freedom. Puente Grande, the maximum-security prison near Guadalajara where Amezcua now resides, is the same lockup where a web of corrupt officials facilitated the escape of infamous narco-trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Mexican legal experts said the country's crippled prosecutors and corrupt state and local police forces give major crime figures an understandable sense of comfort.

"Systemic police corruption is only part of the problem," said Guadalupe Gonzalez, criminologist at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. "There are also confusing legal prerequisites in Mexico that hinder prosecutors. If you have the money for legal talent that knows how to obtain injunctions and is well connected, you can manipulate the system."

When Macedo de la Concha first arrived at his Mexico City headquarters, he found an agency so corrupt that supervisors were auctioning off lucrative field assignments known to be subsidized by drug dealers.

There were thousands of ignored PGR arrest warrants - so many that "criminals were walking the streets with impunity," Macedo de la Concha said.

He also discovered dilapidated facilities and outdated equipment he considered "an embarrassment." Worse, he found so many vacancies in investigative units - 2,300 alone in two key departments - that the nation's ability to handle complicated cases and put away its biggest criminals was effectively stymied.

Ambiguous laws allow judges to often discount police evidence as insufficient.

"Combine that with poorly trained and educated investigators, and you have police and prosecutorial performance that's among the worst in the world," Gonzalez said.

Analysts said it is no wonder Amezcua seems unconcerned. He has been arrested twice before on racketeering and money-laundering charges, only to skip punishment after judges tossed out the evidence against him.

His brothers Luis and Jesus - his alleged partners in a worldwide network of methamphetamine production and distribution - also are in jail after several tries by Mexican prosecutors.

The Amezcuas have so far escaped the ultimate punishment for a Mexican drug criminal - extradition to face indictments in the United States.

Earlier this year, a Mexican Supreme Court ruling made it easier to extradite Mexican citizens to face U.S. indictments.

"There is nothing drug traffickers fear more than doing time in the United States," said Ana Maria Salazar, former U.S. Defense Department drug policy administrator who now teaches at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

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