Mexico's detention of local officials marks shift in anti-drug efforts

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The detention this week of more than two dozen local officials in Michoacan on suspicion of aiding a narcotics cartel marks a new tack in Mexico's bloody drug war, a strategic shift that Wednesday sent nervous politicians running for cover.

Ten mayors and 17 other officials were swept up Tuesday in raids by federal authorities, and were interrogated Wednesday in Mexico City. Ricardo Najera, spokesman for the federal attorney general's office, said the officials are suspected of having ties to La Familia, one of Mexico's most violent drug syndicates.

President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug gangs when he took office in December 2006, saying that traffickers had "overwhelmed" a number of local governments.

But he had focused his energies primarily on a military offensive, deploying 45,000 soldiers and federal police officers. Top drug gangsters have been killed or captured, and federal authorities have also targeted for arrest corrupt law enforcement officers.

But tainted politicians remained largely untouched. And in states like Michoacan, federal authorities allege, local politicians aid and abet traffickers who produce and transport billions of dollars' worth of drugs, most of it to the U.S.

"If the accusations are confirmed," the daily El Universal said in an editorial, "we will have incontrovertible proof that the cartels have entirely penetrated the country's local political elites."

The state prosecutor for Michoacan, Miguel Garcia Hurtado, resigned Wednesday and turned himself in for questioning.

Dismantling the local support networks -- in city halls, police departments, state governments -- is a crucial step in the larger war, analysts say.

"It is at the local level that traffickers have their most important protection," said Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City-based security analyst. "They don't buy off the president of the republic. They buy off the local officials, the mayors, the police chiefs."

Calderon may have decided he would never make sufficient inroads against drug violence without taking on local politicians. But it is unclear whether he can or will sustain the effort.

And in some quarters, Calderon's motives and timing were being questioned. Mexico is 40 days away from nationwide legislative elections in which the president's National Action Party, or PAN, may take big losses.

"You cannot forget the political context in which this is taking place," said Samuel Gonzalez, an analyst who served as Mexico's top anti-drug prosecutor in the 1990s. "You can run the same operation three, five, 10 times, and you still won't get results" because the problem is so widespread.

The Michoacan raids scooped up six mayors from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which poses the greatest electoral challenge to Calderon's party now. Two mayors with Calderon's PAN and two with the leftist opposition Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, were also detained.

Michoacan state Gov. Leonel Godoy, also of the PRD, complained that he was not notified before the raids. Leaving him out of the loop raised suspicion that he too might be implicated. Among those detained were a key advisor to Godoy; his brother also was questioned by the army but was not arrested, his brother told a Michoacan newspaper.

Godoy on Wednesday denied any connection to drug traffickers but also said he was not willing to submit himself to investigation because he was "democratically elected and will only do so if required to constitutionally."

Mexico's laws make it next to impossible to prosecute a sitting governor.

Godoy said he tried to find out what was happening Tuesday when he heard that gunmen were hauling officials from their offices and homes. When such actions are reported, he said, "You never know if these are operations being carried out by authorities or by the organized criminals."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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