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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Mexico traffickers bribed former anti-drug chief, officials say

Noe Ramirez Mandujano, a prosecutor who resigned as head of the SIEDO organized crime unit in July, is arrested on suspicion of passing intelligence to Sinaloa drug gangsters.

By Ken Ellingwood

November 22, 2008

Reporting from Mexico City

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In a spiraling probe of corruption at the top levels of Mexican law enforcement, authorities said Friday that the nation's former anti-drug chief had accepted $450,000 to tip off traffickers.

Noe Ramirez Mandujano, a veteran federal prosecutor who headed an elite organized crime unit known by its initials in Spanish, SIEDO, was arrested on suspicion of passing intelligence to drug gangsters based in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, Mexican Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora said.

Ramirez, 47, who served for 20 months before quitting in July, is the highest-ranking official arrested as part of the government's investigation of drug traffickers' infiltration of police agencies.

The charges against him are the most serious against a Mexican anti-narcotics official since the country's former drug czar was arrested in 1997 on charges of helping a Ciudad Juarez-based cartel.

Six other officials and agents from SIEDO, a division of the attorney general's office that investigates drug smuggling, arms trafficking and other criminal activities, already face charges of leaking intelligence to the Sinaloa group.

Medina Mora said a protected informant told authorities he had paid Ramirez a total of $450,000 as part of a monthly payoff scheme, "in exchange for providing information about investigations and ongoing actions" against the Sinaloa-based smugglers.

The attorney general said that Ramirez voluntarily appeared before prosecutors to answer the accusations and that there was sufficient cause to detain him.

Medina Mora did not specify what information Ramirez is suspected of passing to the gang. He said information was given to two Sinaloa factions: the Beltran Leyva brothers and Zambada brothers.

The charges, if true, represent a major setback for President Felipe Calderon's war on Mexican drug cartels, which has been a centerpiece of his 2-year-old administration. Mexico is awash in drug violence, with more than 4,000 dead this year, according to unofficial counts by the nation's news media.

The allegations put a new dent in the reputation of SIEDO, which U.S. officials had considered trustworthy.

Further evidence of high-level cartel infiltration could leave U.S. agents more wary about sharing information with the agency.

Ramirez's arrest, coming as part of a probe called Operation Cleanup, also will probably further undermine public confidence. Mexicans are increasingly weary of the killing and long ago became accustomed to corruption charges against top police officials.

The offensive, which has sent 45,000 federal troops and 5,000 federal police officers into the streets, has yielded arrests of several high-profile trafficking figures and big seizures of drugs, cash and weapons. But the offensive has yet to crush any of the major drug groups.

Moreover, Calderon administration officials in recent months have confronted an embarrassing string of arrests of ranking police officers and prosecutors assigned to the drug fight.

This week, authorities announced they had detained Mexico's liaison to Interpol as part of the inquiry on leaks to cartels. He was the third top-level federal police commander ordered held in recent weeks.

Calderon, who was traveling Friday in Chile, said he was determined to clean up his administration.

"The government of Mexico has a firm and determined commitment to fight against organized crime, and not only organized crime, but against the corruption that organized crime generates," he said.

The first SIEDO arrests came in early August, just after Ramirez left the agency's top post in a shake-up over unsatisfactory results against kidnapping and drug trafficking. Officials said at the time that his resignation was not tied to the emerging investigation inside the organized crime unit.

Ramirez was then assigned as Mexico's representative to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, based in Vienna.

Last month, Medina Mora announced that as part of the infiltration probe, 35 officials and agents assigned to SIEDO had been arrested or fired. Among those arrested were a senior intelligence officer and the agency's general technical coordinator.

Ellingwood is a Times staff writer.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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Previous coverage of Mexico's drug war is available online.