Redoubling Battle, Mexico Says of Its Anti-Drug Drive

Times Staff Writer

Within the tightly guarded Defense Ministry compound on the western edge of the city stands one of the most unusual museums in Mexico.

On its walls are photos of vast marijuana fields and close-ups of brightly colored opium poppies. Visitors--by invitation only--can examine a poppy, a marijuana plant, inspect some of the paraphernalia used to process narcotics.

"We call it the Museum of Enervating Drugs," the minister of defense, Gen. Juan Arevalo Gardoqui, said proudly.

Stung by charges that corruption has thwarted the fight against drugs, and embarrassed by disclosures of police involvement with dope traffickers, the Mexican government is trying hard to demonstrate that it is serious about its anti-drug campaign.

A major part of this effort is a campaign to make it known that the Mexican army has been involved for a decade in a drive to find and destroy marijuana and opium poppies all over the country.

'Redoubling Our Battle'

"We want to show that this (eradication) campaign has not slowed down," Manuel Alonso, the chief spokesman for the government, told a reporter. "On the contrary, we are redoubling our battle to exterminate these vicious narcotics."

In an unusual interview arranged by the government, Gen. Arevalo Gardoqui, who rarely talks with reporters, said that the army has paid "its dues in blood" to try to halt the drug traffic over the last 10 years.

From May of 1976 to the present, he said, 315 Mexican soldiers have been killed or wounded or injured in accidents while taking part in the anti-drug war. For the most part, he said, this war is being carried out as "Operation Condor" in the western and northwestern parts of Mexico.

The army maintains a permanent task force of 3,000 soldiers in the remote, mountainous region where the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango come together, a region long known as a haven for drug producers and traffickers.

"The problem up there," an army colonel said, "is that all you have to do is throw a seed on the ground and it sprouts, whether you water it or not. The ground is incredibly fertile."

'Educating' Farmers

Another problem is that farmers in this region have become accustomed to raising marijuana and opium poppies. Gen. Arevalo Gardoqui said the army had mounted a "campaign of psychological warfare" to persuade farmers that this is a dangerous practice.

"We think it is ignorance rather than necessity that lures these simple people into cultivating these plants," the general said, "and we are trying to educate them."

Traffickers pay the farmers 10,000 pesos per kilo of marijuana, or $42 for every 2.2 pounds, the general said, and added that the same volume will bring 30 times as much money at the U.S. border.

In addition to "Operation Condor," the army also maintains a force of 500 soldiers in each of the country's 36 military districts. Their primary mission is to destroy opium and marijuana plants and intercept shipments of illicit drugs.

The army also organizes special, 60-day campaigns in regions of intense cultivation. At any given time, Arevalo Gardoqui said, the Mexican army has 25,000 troops in the field in the anti-drug campaign.

U.S. Assists Program

Since its inception, the eradication program has received $12 million to $15 million a year in U.S. assistance. Most of this goes to acquire and maintain a fleet of helicopters for use by the army and the Federal Judicial Police, a branch of the attorney general's office. The helicopters are used for aerial surveillance and for spraying poison on fields of marijuana and poppies.

In general, U.S. officials have praised the program's success. In a telephone interview with a group of Mexican reporters last week, Jon R. Thomas, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters, said that the United States is aware of the merit of the Mexican campaign.

"The program in Mexico has had a lot of success during the past 10 years," Thomas said in the interview, which was arranged by the U.S. Information Service. "We are aware of the efforts that have been made by Mexico, and of the deaths of Mexican agents."

After the interview, officials at the U.S. Embassy here said privately that Thomas had emphasized the success of the program "over the past 10 years," adding that they had perceived a slowdown in recent months.

Diluted Spray Used

One aspect of the slowdown, according to a senior U.S. official, involves the use of diluted chemicals to spray marijuana and poppy fields. This official also said it had been learned that the U.S.-supplied helicopters are not staying in the air long enough to permit adequate inspection of areas where it is suspected that marijuana is being grown.

Gen. Arevalo Gardoqui insisted, however, that the army is much freer of the taint of corruption than Mexican police.

"If you look at some of these people," he said, referring to the police accused of aiding drug traffickers in the state of Jalisco, "you will see that they were people badly recruited and badly selected."

According to Arevalo Gardoqui, army officers acquire a resistance to corruption in their four years at the Heroic Military College, Mexico's military academy. He cited the case of Capt. Jose Trinidad Arambula Torres, who recently rejected an offer of 60 million pesos, about $260,000, if he would keep his troops from raiding a 40-acre marijuana field in Jalisco. An army captain's monthly pay is $450.

Bribe Money Enormous

Still, Mexican officials are worried by the fact that people in the drug traffic have enormous amounts of money available for bribes. Arevalo Gardoqui said that officers involved in the anti-drug campaign are rotated every six months to avoid problems, "and to give them a chance to see other parts of our lovely country."

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