Mexicans hope to avoid drug-trafficking chaos.

A fresh wave of criminal violence has revived old concerns that Mexico is sliding into the same levels of drug-related chaos and corruption as Colombia.

Drug gangs have issued death threats to eight judges and magistrates presiding over organized crime cases this year, according to a Mexican magistrate who serves as a counsel to the federal judiciary. Some threats have been allegedly communicated through lawyers of accused mobsters.

And Mexican Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca acknowledged this week that Mexico's new FBI-like federal police agency has gradually been tainted by corruption by organized crime rings that traffic drugs.

More than 800 people have died so far this year in drug-gang violence, including many municipal and state police, whose ranks continue to be compromised by bribes and threats from traffickers.

President Vicente Fox has dispatched army troops to Acapulco and the border city of Nuevo Laredo, where gangs are fighting for a smuggling corridor into the United States.

As Mexico gears up for a fierce a presidential election on July 2, 2006, there is also concern that narcotics money could infect the campaign, the first presidential campaign since Mexicans elected Fox and ousted the former one-party regime that ran the country for 71 years.

"We're doing intense work in this direction because it is fundamental to avoid" allowing "dirty money" to get into the political process, Mexican Interior Minister Carlos Abascal told foreign correspondents on Friday.

Colombia, the source of most cocaine trafficked to the United States and elsewhere, has suffered for years under waves of brazen assassinations of judges and allegations of cartel financing of political campaigns.

Abascal, who is in charge of security issues, denied that narcotics smuggling is turning Mexico into Colombia, where huge swaths of national territory are controlled by armed guerrilla groups that oversee lucrative cocaine production.

Mexico is "nowhere near" being "overpowered" by cartels, Abascal said.

As for threats to judges, Abascal repeated what he told a Mexican newspaper Thursday: "We are confident this doesn't happen to the majority, although it's important to keep observing these events to take the necessary measures."

He also generally defended the efforts of the Fox government, which came into power in 2000 after seven decades of control by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, which many in Mexico blame for allowing smuggling gangs to take root and flourish.

"Organized crime in Mexico didn't emerge in 2000," Abascal said. "What's happening today is the federal government is not tolerating organized crime."

He also claimed that Fox's decision to send army troops to Nuevo Laredo, on the Texas border, has yielded some positive results.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza closed the consulate in Nuevo Laredo recently for a week, an action he acknowledged was to "punish" Mexico for not doing more to control violence.

"Nuevo Laredo is not anywhere near complete collapse," Abascal said.

In the 30 days since troops were sent, he said, killings among rival drug gangs in the city have declined to about a quarter of the number before the arrival of soldiers and federal police.

Luis Astorga, an expert on drug gangs at the Mexico's National Autonomous University, agreed that Fox has done more to arrest infamous drug lords than previous governments. But the arrests haven't diminished the quantity or price of cocaine and other drugs that are smuggled across the border, he said. More than 70 percent of cocaine, which is from

South America, is smuggled into the United States through Mexico. Large amounts of marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine are produced in Mexico and trafficked, too.

Astorga views the current escalation of drug-gang violence not just as a fight for turf, but also as part of a bigger struggle as gangs adjust to Mexico's new pluralistic political structure.

Under Mexico's previous authoritarian one-party state, from the federal down to the municipal level, Astorga said, it was easier for the cartels to have a corrupting influence and to intimidate officials.

"Now there's not one chain of command," Astorga said. "The authoritarian state had the power to control the (drug-trafficking) phenomenon somewhat."

Colombia and Mexico, Astorga also noted, differ in key ways. Cocaine cultivation and trafficking developed in Colombia partly because the government had little control over isolated regions, where cartels could have free reign.

In Mexico, Astorga, said, some government officials have always had a hand in trafficking, and the police have always been prone to corruption and serving the cartels.

"What could be the same, though, is the level of violence," Astorga said.

More than a dozen years ago, Mexicans first began to fear the "Colombianization" of their country with the shocking machine-gun murder of Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo.

The official yet inconclusive version of the cardinal's 1993 murder was that triggermen from one gang mistook the cardinal's car for that of a rival drug gang leader in the parking lot of the Guadalajara airport.

[Source: By Susan Ferris, Cox News Service, Mexico City, 27ago05]

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