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Mexican Citizens Taking Action Against Corruption

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To U.S. tourists and well-heeled Mexicans, this resort city is a haven of sunny weather, elegant restaurants and riotous gardens of purple and magenta bougainvillea.

But in recent years, Cuernavaca has become a haven of a more sinister sort. Kidnappers have sown terror in the city and region, abducting hundreds of people. Drug lords have moved into the walled mansions of the “city of eternal spring.” Authorities seemed helpless in the face of chaos.

Now Mexicans are learning why. In a microcosm of the crisis in the nation’s criminal justice system, top state officials are under arrest, accused of helping drug and kidnapping gangs or covering up police abuse.

Rarely in Mexico have the authorities been tied so openly to criminals. Even more startling has been the response: In a glimpse of the new Mexico, citizens in Cuernavaca and throughout the state where it is located, Morelos, have launched protests that now threaten to bring down the powerful governor.

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“People have had it,” said Patricia Edelen, 46, a Cuernavaca interior decorator who joined the demonstrations after several friends were abducted. “People have been kidnapped and robbed, and they’re not going to be quiet about it.”

Just 90 minutes south of Mexico City, Cuernavaca has long been a weekend refuge for residents fleeing the giant capital’s smog. It has also been a magnet for foreigners, ranging from Spanish-language students to U.S. retirees to socialites such as the late Barbara Hutton. But a four-year wave of crime in the state--including an estimated 350 kidnappings--has led to an exodus.

As in other parts of Mexico, where officials have lost control over police as the authoritarian political system crumbles, residents here had suspected that the cops were involved in crime. What set Morelos apart was the startling event that confirmed those suspicions.

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On Jan. 28, a highway patrol cruiser spotted a black pickup that had pulled off a deserted freeway in Guerrero, the state next to Morelos. Stopping to investigate, the officers found a body stuffed behind the driver’s seat--and three Morelos state police officers in the vehicle, including the commander of the anti-kidnap unit, Armando Martinez Salgado.

The incident has led to allegations of corruption that make the police of “L.A. Confidential” look tame.

Martinez Salgado and four other officers are being held on kidnapping charges. Forty other anti-kidnap police officers have apparently fled. Authorities in the nearby state of Guanajuato announced recently that Martinez Salgado was also under investigation there for allegedly collecting ransom after a man’s abduction. Martinez Salgado’s family and lawyer declined to comment, but he reportedly has testified that his superiors knew of his actions.

The scandal has spread to the Morelos state police chief and attorney general, who have been charged with involvement in the death of the man in the pickup. According to press reports, the victim allegedly was a criminal tortured and slain during a dispute with police over a ransom.

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Then, in one of the most stunning turns in the case, officials announced that Martinez Salgado had admitted protecting drug lords. He reportedly said he met with Amado Carrillo Fuentes, one of Mexico’s top traffickers before his death in July, and his lieutenant, Juan Jose Esparragoza.

The confession outraged residents, who have discovered in recent years that the traffickers owned mansions in Morelos and appeared to operate freely.

“The same people who should be guaranteeing justice are the delinquents,” protested Ricardo Alvarez, a 73-year-old photographer who snaps tourists in Cuernavaca’s colonial plaza. “Everyone is very upset.”

Morelos’ governor, Jorge Carrillo Olea, a prominent figure in the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, insists that he knew nothing of his subordinates’ alleged wrongdoing. Federal authorities say they have no evidence that the governor was involved.

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But the revelations have fueled a movement to remove him from office. For two years, human rights and citizens groups have been calling for action against the police for failing to stop the kidnappings, which have affected a growing number of people--wealthy, working class and even some foreigners.

Now the movement has swelled. Nearly 10,000 residents marched through Cuernavaca in February demanding the governor’s resignation. More than 100,000 residents--one-quarter of those who voted in the last gubernatorial election--turned out last month for a nonbinding, unofficial referendum on whether the governor should stay. More than 94% said no.

The protesters have ranged from left- to right-wing politicians, from Chamber of Commerce leaders to supporters of the Zapatista rebels. The denunciations have spread from plaza to pulpit: The local Roman Catholic bishop publicly excommunicated Martinez Salgado, the anti-kidnap chief.

“The people of Morelos are the face of the new Mexico, where participation is key,” said Santiago Creel, a member of Congress from the conservative National Action Party, or PAN.

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In the past, he noted, the decision to fire an unpopular governor came from on high--the president himself. But in this case, “the decision is being built from below.”

But the scandal is not only a test of citizens’ power as Mexico moves from a one-party system to full democracy. It also represents new muscle-flexing by opposition parties, which took control of the Morelos state legislature for the first time in midterm elections a year ago.

The state Congress has announced that it will begin proceedings shortly to impeach Carrillo Olea. The opposition says it has the votes to force him out and name a successor. But the possibility that the governor could be replaced without a popular vote has left some uneasy. PRI leaders and others charge that the opposition is using the protest movement to install one of its own in the governor’s mansion.

“This uproar has been created by a small group that is using the [demonstrators] as a political trampoline,” Carrillo Olea told the daily Reforma last month. The governor declined to be interviewed for this article.

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The impeachment process is expected to revolve around accusations that the governor did not react to the crime crisis and allegations of police involvement. Many critics, however, believe that the governor’s responsibility goes deeper. They say that Carrillo Olea, a retired general who had directed Mexico’s anti-drug force and its intelligence agency, must have realized what his officials were up to.

The governor has said he believed that the police were combating crime, noting they had jailed more than 400 alleged kidnappers. But human rights groups and opposition politicians charge that many of those were either small-time hoods or innocent people.

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Critics also are asking how Carrillo Olea could have missed the fact that drug lords were moving into the state--one reportedly occupying a house just three blocks from the governor’s mansion.

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Carrillo Olea has responded that it wasn’t his job as governor to investigate drug trafficking, which is a federal crime.

Manuel Diego Castillo, head of a business executives group that has joined the protests against the governor, said it had been public knowledge that traffickers were living in the area. But they were never detained.

“This bothers us,” he said. “The evidence indicates that Cuernavaca came to be a vacation center not just for tourists from Mexico City but also for drug traffickers.”

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F. Brinley Bruton of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.


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