Mexican aide's arrest strains U.S. relations

Fox's travel planner linked to drug traffickers

fresh tensions rise

February 13, 2005|By Hugh Dellios | Hugh Dellios,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MEXICO CITY - The discovery of an alleged drug traffickers' informant inside President Vicente Fox's office comes at an inopportune time for those trying to smooth new tensions in U.S.-Mexico relations.

The arrest 10 days ago of Nahum Acosta Lugo, the president's travel planner, came as Fox and U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza were visiting the border to showcase the two nations' friendship, and as Mexicans were glowing over the engagement of Garza and Corona beer heiress Maria Asuncion Aramburuzabala.

The hope was that the divisive issue of narco-trafficking could be pushed off the table again after a flap in recent weeks over a letter Garza wrote criticizing Mexico's handling of an increasingly bloody drug war along the border.

Both sides want to prevent the drug issue from rising to the top of the bilateral agenda, which it often dominated before Fox took office in 2000. That, they say, could undermine Fox and fuel the arguments of those in the United States pushing for more barriers to immigration rather than President Bush's proposed easing of it.

"They need to keep it off the table, and the only way to keep it off is to make sure [the anti-drug cooperation] is working so nobody is talking about it," said Ana Maria Salazar, a Mexican-American analyst and former Pentagon official who worked on the drug war.

"For a while there, they were kind of coming back to the old 1980s language, where the Americans would cross their arms and say, `Well, if it wasn't for you corrupt Mexicans ... ' and the Mexicans would cross their arms and say, `Well, if it wasn't for your drug-crazed youths. ...'"

As the attorney general's office investigates what information Acosta may have leaked to the drug traffickers, Fox tried to play down the seriousness of the allegations of a breach during a visit last week to Spain.

Although his office originally characterized the case as serious, Fox said last week that Acosta "had no confidential information." And he dismissed the idea that drug kingpins had infiltrated the presidential office as "total exaggerations" by his political opponents.

Fox also reiterated that Mexico would push ahead with "the mother of all battles" against the narco-traffickers. His government's efforts in that battle - including the arrests of several kingpins - have been praised by U.S. officials.

But the mole scandal continued as the Mexican media reported that Acosta, who has worked for Fox for three years, allegedly had ties to lieutenants of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. He is the leader of the Ciudad Juarez drug cartel and allegedly is most responsible for the escalating war over drug-trafficking turf along the border.

Analysts say that they don't know why the traffickers would want information about the president's travel agenda and that there have been more sensitive infiltrations in the past. A bigger concern, they say, is how Acosta got hired without his alleged ties being known by Mexican intelligence agencies.

The case comes as Mexicans are trying to decipher the message behind Garza's letter to the Mexican foreign minister and attorney general in January, which touched a raw nerve here and unleashed a bitter response that showed just how sensitive the war on drugs continues to be in bilateral relations.

U.S. officials say the letter, which criticized the effectiveness of Mexican police, was nothing more than an effort to soften a State Department alert about the border war putting U.S. citizens at risk. But it had the opposite effect, drawing more attention to the problem and embarrassing Fox.

Garza quickly tried to make amends, praising the Fox government for its capture of the kingpins and acknowledging that those successes played a part in the escalating drug war as others tried to take over the jailed traffickers' turf.

But noting the increasing border bloodshed and the discovery that the incarcerated kingpins were controlling at least one of Mexico's maximum-security prisons, many Mexicans said they had no doubt that the letter contained a clear message of concern from Washington.

Jorge Montano, a former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., said those concerns were "legitimate" and that it would be "impossible to expect U.S. tolerance of the loss of governability in our country."

While criticizing Garza's letter for breaking the rules of diplomacy, Montano also criticized Fox and his aides for making a "gigantic scandal" with their angry reaction. Many analysts interpreted the harsh words of Interior Secretary Santiago Creel, who is running for president next year, as an age-old attempt to win votes by bashing the United States.

Rafael Fernandez de Castro, another analyst of U.S.-Mexican relations, said he did not believe conspiracy theories about the letter, such as that it foreshadowed a tougher stance against Mexico by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But he criticized what he called a "complacency" that has developed in the war on drugs - by Mexican officials who were proud of their successes and pleased at the praise from the United States, and by a U.S. government whose focus shifted to the war on terrorism.

"I hope this [letter dispute] was a call to attention," he said. "This should be a priority for both the U.S. and Mexico."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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