Mexico makes big gains in fighting drug cartels

With help of informants, 20 top chiefs arrested

March 31, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MEXICO CITY - Outgunned and outspent, the Mexican government is nonetheless scoring striking victories against the drug cartels that have corrupted the country for two decades.

More than 20 of Mexico's most-wanted men have been arrested in recent months in an anti-crime sweep without precedent. The accused drug lords are reputed to have controlled billions of dollars in cocaine and paid bribes to thousands of police officers, prosecutors and judges. The latest suspects to fall were Benjamin Arellano Felix, charged March 9 as the leader of the Tijuana drug cartel, and Adan Medrano Rodriguez, known as the Gulf cartel's operations chief, charged Wednesday.

The change has occurred because a handful of traffickers became government informants, officials said. The information led to arrests, and some of those arrested turned into informants, leading to many more arrests. Working up the cartels' chains of command, Mexico has been breaking down the doors of the nation's biggest drug chiefs.

"The quality of the intelligence has gone up," Asa Hutchinson, chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a telephone interview Friday. "These building blocks of intelligence let us get to the highest-level traffickers."

Last year's decision by Mexico's Supreme Court to allow the extradition of those arrested to the United States made some traffickers "so nervous that they are reaching out and trying to cut deals," a senior law enforcement official in Mexico said.

American trust in Mexican officials - a trust that did not exist two years ago - is deepening with each arrest. The United States is passing on secret intelligence to Mexico without fearing that corrupt agents will sell it to traffickers.

Still, the quantity of drugs that reaches American streets from Mexico is undiminished. The traffickers shrug off seizures of multimillion-dollar cocaine shipments. They have "an unlimited ability to lose tons of dope and still make a profit," the senior law enforcement official in Mexico said.

But the arrests have had an effect in Mexico. The chiefs of the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels are in prison. So are the two top lieutenants of the Gulf cartel and the operations chief of the Juarez cartel. All this has happened in the past 11 months.

Now turf wars and fratricide are breaking out among the cartels. "We see a scattering within the organizations," said Jose Santiago Vasconcelos, chief of Mexico's federal organized-crime unit.

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