Mounting evidence of widespread drug-related corruption in the Mexican military should be a wake-up call to American policymakers: There is something fundamentally wrong with U.S. drug-war policy.
Last February, Mexico's top anti-narcotics official, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested for selling protection to one of the country's most powerful drug lords. In March, a second general was arrested on drug-corruption charges. The news sent shock waves through Washington. Congress initially threatened to impose sanctions on Mexico, then settled for a milder censure.
Now, evidence gleaned from Mexican Defense Ministry files indicates that corruption in the military may be more widespread than previously recognized: 10 generals and 22 other military officers are under investigation for alleged ties to drug traffickers. The scandal and intrigue are widening.
Gutierrez claims he was targeted for prosecution because of his own investigation into alleged drug connections of members of the family of Mexico's president, Ernesto Zedillo. In late July, an important witness against Gutierrez was ambushed and wounded. Four days later, Irma Ibarra, a lawyer and reputed mistress of one of the 10 Mexican generals, identified in the files as having brought him and other officers together with key drug traffickers, was assassinated.
Untangling the roots of Mexico's drug-related corruption--and determining how deep they run--is difficult. The Mexican military is shrouded in a culture of silence. It has long escaped public scrutiny and accountability. Officials in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have been hesitant to press for thorough investigations. The United States, meanwhile, has mostly chosen to turn a blind eye to the evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies of drug-related corruption among Mexican officials.
In 1991, for example, Washington knew that Mexican soldiers protecting a drug delivery gunned down Mexican police agents. The United States had evidence in the early 1990s of drug corruption high in the administration of then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari; both his brother and his assistant attorney general were implicated. In 1994, the U.S. Embassy quietly drew up a long list of top Salinas administration officials suspected of having drug ties. Early this year, court documents confirmed that the Tijuana cartel has been paying off hundreds of Mexican law-enforcement officials for tip-offs, help in guarding shipments and assistance in crossing the U.S. border.
U.S. officials have been reluctant to move forcefully or publicly on such evidence, because they feared such action would threaten progress on other U.S. priorities, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and immigration. But the rising mountain of evidence has become too big to sweep under the rug. Congress and the media have focused U.S. public attention on the issue. The Mexican public may also be drawn in: The PRI's losses last month in the lower house of Congress have positioned opposition parties to investigate and expose corruption, if they choose to do so.
As the problem of widespread official corruption has become increasingly difficult to dodge, the Clinton administration has rushed to reassure Congress and the public that the situation is under control. First, the administration has repeatedly expressed absolute confidence in the incorruptibility of Zedillo and contended that the entire system can be cleaned up, since corruption has not "started at the top and moved down," as was the case in Colombia.
Second, the administration is heartened by the creation of a new Mexican drug-fighting agency, whose screening techniques are said to be much more refined. The agency was established to replace the discredited institution headed by Gutierrez until his arrest. But history offers little reason for confidence. The general, after all, had been brought in to rebuild the last anti-drug agency, which had also been created to replace a corrupted predecessor.
Finally, using a favored tactic, the administration continues to press Mexico to bypass the thoroughgoing corruption of the civilian police by calling in the military, one of the few armies in Latin America that has historically remained outside politics and respectful of civilian rule. But the evidence suggests that drug corruption will move from one institution to the other, and that corruption will overwhelm the Mexican military long before the military curtails the drug trade. The corruption might also undermine civilian control of the military at precisely the time that democratization is taking hold in Mexico.
The administration's optimism in the face of this history masks a deeper denial of the sources of corruption--and the unintentional complicity of the United States. Taking on the problem of drug-related corruption demands confronting how and why the problem has become endemic throughout the countries charged with conducting the U.S. war on drugs.
In Mexico and other drug-producing and trafficking countries, police and military forces are pitted against a trade so lucrative that the cartels spend an estimated $6 billion a year on bribery in Mexico and still make billions of dollars. The mix of huge drug profits and the small salaries of police and military officials make it rational for counternarcotics forces to "trade" their enforcement capability for a share of the profits.
The pattern is widespread. One official of the Drug Enforcement Administration explained that in Bolivia, an anti-narcotics agent "simply has to instruct his guys not to search some traffickers at a particular checkpoint for three days, and he earns a lifetime's salary." In many cases, counternarcotics forces go beyond simply "overlooking" drug activity and actively assist the drug traffickers: One U.S. Special Forces commander confirmed that members of the Peruvian Army have received payments for allowing traffickers to use airstrips.
The problem is most serious when state institutions are used to shield individual accountability. On occasion, state and military power have even been used by heads of state to participate in the drug trade, as in Panama under Manuel Noriega and Bolivia under Gen. Luis Garcia Meza's regime in the 1980s.
Some policymakers admit that corruption inevitably follows big drug profits. What is difficult for U.S. officials to acknowledge is that the U.S. drug war deepens--rather than reduces--the incentives for corruption.
The drug war aims to raise prices in order to curb drug use in the United States. The price-hike strategy attempts to curtail supply by targeting producers and traffickers. But success in raising prices also radically inflates black-market profits for growers and traffickers. A pure gram of pharmaceutical cocaine that would cost about $15 when produced legally brings about $150 on the retail black market. As long as demand runs high for an illicit product, explained Colombia's Prosecutor General Gustavo de Greiff in 1994, "the narcotraficantes will continue to receive these immense profits that allow them to corrupt everyone."
A frustrating dynamic is created: The more efficient U.S. training and resources make the Mexican police and military, the better able they are to track and find the drug traffickers--and the higher the bribes they can expect for nonenforcement.
The possible corruption of the Mexican military is a legitimate U.S. foreign-policy concern; it would undermine civilian government and restrict the possibilities for further democratization; it could trigger instability and political turmoil at a time when our two countries should be drawing closer. But to blame official Mexican corruption as the cause of our drug problems--and to place sole responsibility on weak-willed Mexican officials--is deeply misleading. The drive to corrupt is, to a disturbing degree, fueled by U.S. enforcement strategies and by Americans' continued demand for drugs --a demand that must be addressed through prevention and treatment at home. Confronting these dynamics is a necessary step toward addressing the corruption of the war on drugs.