Corrupt Police Are No. 1 Target : Mexico Tries to End Reign of Drug Lords in Sinaloa

Times Staff Writer

The government of Mexico, long used to looking at illicit narcotics as a big problem for the United States and a minor bother for itself, has decided that the trade is getting out of control in Sinaloa, a Pacific Coast farming state. In a region where country musicians sing the praises of drug lords, the government is changing its tune.

Drug smugglers had the run of Sinaloa in recent years. By all accounts, the trade went hand in hand with payoffs to corrupt officials. Policemen ignored traffickers and their gunmen who strolled the streets unmolested.

Sinaloa, once famous for its blood sausage, became known for its bloody shoot-outs and unsolved homicides. Here in Culiacan, the state capital, off-duty policemen once used a passing motorcyclist for target practice.

Meanwhile, farmers openly planted marijuana and opium poppies, the source of heroin, on government land. Cocaine shippers freely moved their cargoes to the United States--often with a police escort.

President Miguel de la Madrid, seeing his nationwide "moral renovation" campaign against graft drowning in Sinaloa, sent a new governor, Francisco Labastida, to clean up the state. The steps that Labastida has taken, along with army action ordered from Mexico City, hint at the toll taken on law enforcement by the drug trade.

Labastida fired 120 of Sinaloa's 800 state policemen and jailed 20 of them on a variety of charges. Four former state police officers were arraigned earlier this year in the torture-murder of a Culiacan youth.

The role of federal policemen in carrying out drug raids was turned over to the Mexican army. Soldiers are considered more trustworthy than the federales .

"The principal target for corruption is the police," said Fernando Garcia Felix, the coordinator for security in Sinaloa. "It's most attractive for criminals to corrupt the police. That way, they can act with impunity."

Labastida, while not claiming victory, talks of progress.

"You won't hear the rattle of machine guns at night anymore," he recently assured a reporter.

In private, Mexican officials say that corruption in Sinaloa represents no more than a patch on the broad fabric of drug-related graft in law enforcement. Yet the government has rarely moved to punish officials involved, preferring instead quiet dismissals or retirement.

Irritated U.S. officials charge that the extent of corruption makes it almost impossible to mount an effective joint effort against the drug traffic, even though the attorneys general of the two countries meet now and again and promise to take action against drugs.

'Don't Want Arrests'

"From my perspective, I haven't seen any change on the border," William Von Raab, head of the U.S. Customs Service, said not long ago. "The stuff is probably pouring across at a greater rate than it was a year ago."

Von Raab, long a vocal critic of Mexican anti-drug efforts, said that Mexico represents a "safe harbor" for smugglers.

Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), put it this way: "The corruption within the government makes the drug fight impossible. They (the Mexicans) don't want arrests to take place."

American drug enforcement officials say they have sure knowledge of the drug-graft connection in Mexico. The information came to light, they say, in the course of the investigation into the 1985 torture-killing of Enrique S. Camarena, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officer stationed in Guadalajara, and his Mexican pilot and informant, Alfredo Zavala. At the time, Camarena was investigating gangs that move cocaine from Colombia to the United States.

According to a U.S. intelligence source, the U.S. government "pulled out all the stops" in its efforts to find the killers. Among the tools used were CIA wiretaps in Mexico, some with the permission of the Mexican authorities and some, one source said, without.

Along with data gathered from DEA agents in Mexico, the taps not only produced lists of drug runners but scores of politicians, customs officials and federal and state police officials who cooperated with them.

"Drugs didn't cause corruption," one DEA agent said. "The corruption was already there, and drugs fed on it."

Names Kept Secret

For the most part, the names have been kept secret. Still, the investigation helped lead Mexican officials to arrest Rafael Caro Quintero, a known Sinaloa drug smuggler.

Caro Quintero's arrest did not come easy--for reasons that seem to confirm U.S. suspicions. He took off for Costa Rica from an airfield near Guadalajara that was being guarded by officers of the Federal Judicial Police. In order to ensure his escape, Caro Quintero wrote out a check for about $300,000, handed it to an aide and told the police commander it would be cashed and distributed the next day, DEA officials say.

Caro Quintero was captured in Costa Rica, extradited, and is now in a Mexico City jail awaiting trial.

That his home state, Sinaloa, should be the scene of drug-caused chaos is no surprise to American officials. U.S. anti-drug agents on both sides of the border talk bitterly of the role played by former Sinaloa Gov. Antonio Toledo Corro in tolerating drug smuggling in his state. According to one DEA source, he "received money on a great scale" from drug traffickers.

Last June, Von Raab, the U.S. Customs commissioner, accused a Mexican governor of growing opium poppies and marijuana on his property. Von Raab, however, named the wrong governor. Sources with the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Latin America, before which Von Raab made his charges, said that he had intended to refer to Toledo Corro.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico John A. Gavin, appearing before the panel to clarify the mix-up, said he knew that two Mexican governors were "up to their elbows" in drug trafficking and corruption. He declined to name them but smiled broadly and refused to deny it when Toledo Corro's name was mentioned.

Denies Charges

A Times reporter tried to reach Toledo Corro by telephone several times at his office in Mazatlan but he never returned any of the calls. In the past, however, he has denied aiding or abetting drug smugglers.

At the end of April, Toledo Corro told reporters that "in Sinaloa the new government has started a campaign against drug traffic and supplied ample security as demanded by the Sinaloa citizenry, as (I did) during my term."

Sinaloa has long been the home of narcotics cultivation and traffic. It borders on the states of Chihuahua and Durango along the rugged Sierra Madre, forming a sort of Mexican Golden Triangle for marijuana and opium poppy cultivation. The coca plant, the source of cocaine, is not grown in Mexico, but mountain airstrips provide hidden drop-off points for transshipping it.

In the late 1970s, the Mexican government set out to destroy the drug crops and break up the narcotics gangs in Sinaloa. The drive, spurred by U.S. pressure, forced many of the traffickers to flee Sinaloa for Guadalajara.

When Toledo Corro was governor of Sinaloa, some returned. Felix Gallardo, an important drug figure who has been implicated by U.S. officials in the Camarena-Zavala killings but is still free, has reportedly attended weddings and baptisms in Culiacan. The Mexican press has linked Toledo Corro to Gallardo, reporting a romantic liaison between the former governor and a sister of Gallardo.

Newspapers estimate that in 1986 there were two homicides a day in Culiacan. Drug traffickers were said to be buying real estate in the resort town of Mazatlan, and peasants complained of being forced to grow marijuana on their communal farms. Young, armed drug runners seized women on the roads and raped them. Sinaloan young people began to use the suddenly abundant cocaine.

At first, the De la Madrid government made modest efforts to curtail violence in Sinaloa. Last year, it pressured Toledo Corro to replace his state attorney general and his state chief of police. When Toledo Corro's six-year term ended in January, his successor, Labastida, set out to reduce violence in the state.

Besides firing policemen and strengthening the state attorney's office, Labastida set up intermittent roadblocks along the state's highways to search for contraband and arms. Thousands of weapons were confiscated in the first months of this year, according to local press reports.

Labastida, De la Madrid's former secretary of energy, mines and state-owned industry, also sought to take the glamour out of drug smuggling. He ordered radio stations to stop broadcasting ballads about drug traffickers--Caro Quintero is a favorite subject of these--and he asked children to turn in their toy guns at school.

The central government began to act directly. The new regional military commander, Gen. Rodolfo Reta Trigos, carried out at least two raids on houses thought to be sheltering drug traffickers.

The first raid, in Mazatlan in early March, netted 14 low-level smugglers and associates.

That same evening, seven traffickers were killed under confused circumstances. First reports said the seven were slain in the raid on the house. However, the army later claimed the seven were killed after firing on an army roadblock near Mazatlan's airport. Neither account could be confirmed independently.

Among the seven fatalities were a former Jalisco state policeman and a former army officer.

Sinaloa newspapers printed grisly photos of the dead, among them a man named Gabino Zamora Uzeta, reported to be a relative of Manuel (Crazy Pig) Salcido. Salcido is considered to be Sinaloa's No. 2 drug trafficker, after Felix Gallardo. There is a warrant out for Salcido's arrest for drug smuggling, according to the federal attorney general's office.

The message was clear. In the words of Gen. Adrian Almazan, who heads the army campaign to destroy drug crops in the Sierra Madre: "This is war. We are fighting a life-or-death battle."

The second March raid, in Culiacan, went sour. Soldiers approached four houses in the city thought to be hideouts of suspected drug traffickers known as Mayo Zavala, Geraldo Salazar, "Wolf" Retamoza and Luis Fuentes. When the soldiers entered the houses, they found no one there.

There has been no publicity about the failed raid, which The Times learned of independently. Mexican government sources in Culiacan say that informants in the federal police tipped off the drug smugglers.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office would not say if there are warrants out for the arrests of Zavala, Salazar, Retamoza or Luis Fuentes.

"I couldn't say because giving that information to the press would be the same as letting those men know we were after them, and they would go into hiding," said Francisco Fonseca, the spokesman. Fonseca also corrected the spelling of Zavala's name.

He said he was willing to confirm Salcido's warrant because, he said, "Salcido is among the most well known of drug traffickers."

Operations Moved

With the pressure on again in Sinaloa, drug smugglers have simply moved their operations to other states, especially the high-plateau regions north of Mexico City. Also, there are reports of new poppy plantation in such states as Chiapas and Guerrero, as well as increased marijuana crops in Vera Cruz and Oaxaca.

The move is eased, U.S. officials contend, by the unwillingness of Mexico to bring drug traffickers and corrupt police officials to justice. Mexican police have made dozens of arrests in the Camarena-Zavala slayings, but there has been only one conviction, that of Armando Pavon Reyes, a Federal Judicial Police commander in Guadalajara and, according to court testimony, chief recipient of Caro Quintero's check. Pavon Reyes is currently free on $300 bail while appealing a four-year sentence for accepting a bribe.

Pavon Reyes was a central figure in the mystery surrounding the recovery of Camarena's and Zavala's bodies. The bodies were found in the state of Michoacan, on a ranch belonging to Manuel Bravo, a former member of the Mexican Congress and a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

No one ever got to ask Bravo how the bodies got there. He was gunned down along with his two sons and two other men when federal police raided the ranch. The police said that Bravo fired first.

Nonetheless, the government later detained the officer who led the raid, Alfonso Velasquez, and other officers involved. Velasquez confessed to having received $25,000 from drug traffickers to give to Pavon Reyes, then his commander, so that the police would not press their search for the Camarena-Zavala killers, according to Mexican press accounts.

Anonymous Tip Claimed

Velasquez said that Pavon Reyes told him the bodies of the dead DEA men would be thrown onto the grounds of Bravo's ranch and that he should go look for them there. Newspapers at the time reported that Pavon Reyes said he had received an anonymous tip about where they were.

Other police officers under investigation for the Camarena-Zavala killings told investigating officers of guarding drug crops or escorting shipments north in return for bribes, law enforcement officials said.

U.S. officials contend that drug-based corruption has reached beyond the occasional cop on the beat into high levels of the Mexican government. As an example, they point to the 1985 shake-up of the Federal Security Directorate.

The directorate, known by its initials in Spanish, DFS, is an internal intelligence force under the Ministry of the Interior. Along with his checkbook, Caro Quintero was reported to be carrying DFS identification when he fled Guadalajara.

In February, 1985, DFS Chief Jose Antonio Zorrilla resigned to run for Congress from the state of Hidalgo. Two and a half months later, without explanation, his candidacy was withdrawn by the PRI. In May, according to press reports here, Zorrilla fled to Spain. About 400 of the 2,000 DFS agents were subsequently fired.

DEA officials confirm reports in the Mexican press that Zorrilla supplied DFS identification cards to Caro Quintero and other drug traffickers to prevent their arrests. He also distributed bribes to government officials, they say. Mexican government spokesmen say only that there are no charges pending against Zorrilla.

Mexico is by no means the only country unable to hold drug suspects. For instance, Ramon Matta Ballesteros, the mastermind behind the Mexico-Colombia cocaine connection, escaped from a Colombian jail last year. He reportedly paid prison officials $1 million to look the other way.

Matta is a Honduran national who revolutionized drug smuggling in Mexico by introducing computers and business techniques to what had been an adobe shack industry. Colombian officials had arrested him in 1985.

After his escape, Matta secretly returned to Honduras, where he was detained on an eight-year-old murder charge. But despite U.S. influence--Washington gives Honduras millions of dollars a year in aid--Honduras would not send Matta to the United States, where four courts want to try him on drug-smuggling charges.

The Honduran constitution forbids extradition. When the old murder charge did not hold up in a Honduran court, Matta went free.

In counterpoint to such frustrations, a joint civilian-army crop destruction drive in Mexico is receiving cautious praise from U.S. officials. After months of cajoling by Washington, the Mexican attorney general's office is permitting DEA agents to fly with its pilots to verify drug crop destruction. But the DEA does not go in with the army on the ground.

One DEA agent called the eradication program the world's largest. The DEA has 30 agents in Mexico to work with Mexican officials.

The army effort, Task Force Mars, is trying to repeat the success of a similar drive in the late 1970s. Foot soldiers comb the Sierra looking for patches of marijuana and opium poppies. Raids on large marijuana farms in Chihuahua and other states in the early 1980s forced marijuana growers to retreat to small-scale plantings in the hard-to-reach mountains. Opium growers have long worked the highlands.

On a recent helicopter trip into the Sierra, Gen. Almazan said that gunmen guarding drug farms sometimes fire on his men. He said the military effort lacks resources; his small helicopter, for example, was borrowed from the attorney general's office. Unlike the civilian eradicators, who use liquid weed killers, the army uses its hands, slashing at poppies with sticks and pulling up marijuana plants.

Typical Raid

Almazan took a Times reporter to a farm called El Destierro, across the state line in Durango, where peasants supplement their corn and onion crops with poppies. The land is government-owned, worked by poor farmers in communal lots. Almazan's soldiers cut down about five acres of poppies, some of which were ready for harvesting. Sixteen peasants were arrested.

At about the same time, soldiers on Three Peak Mountain, near the town of Tamazula in Durango, found about 1 1/2 tons of marijuana packed and ready for shipment. An eager young lieutenant told Almazan that the owners of the crop were absent when his soldiers found the marijuana. After being praised by their general, the soldiers burned it.

Almost everyone agrees that the drug trade is too profitable to eradicate. U.S. demand for drugs continues to be strong; neither Washington nor any state government has been able to stamp it out. In a country such as Mexico, where poverty is the lot of most rural people and corruption provides extra income for underpaid government agents, such a firm market is a windfall.

With little hope of stamping out the traffic, the question has now become: Will Mexico go the way of Colombia, where drug traffickers have fully turned against the government, helping to finance guerrilla movements and virtually running parts of the country?

Events in Sinaloa suggest that the Mexican government is aware of the dangers. Or becoming aware.

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