After years of investigations compromised by crooked agents and bureaucratic inefficiency, raids on anti-drug agents in 11 Mexican states Thursday suggested that the government may be taking a more methodical and effective approach to combating drug-related corruption, experts said Friday.
Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha said that the raids were a watershed and that the agency targeted Thursday and in other recent raids probably will be dismantled, with many of its functions reassigned to other departments. It "is going to disappear," Macedo told a radio interviewer.
Soldiers and police Thursday shut down 11 offices of the Federal Special Prosecutor's Office for Drug Crimes, or FEADS, which is roughly Mexico's equivalent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Though no arrests were made, Mexican Justice Department officials said they were searching for evidence of corruption among agents, a process they said would take at least two weeks. The army will assist in securing the sites.
The 11 states where the raids took place were Sonora, Yucatan, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Nayarit, Chiapas, Guerrero, Baja California, Tabasco, Jalisco and Oaxaca.
The dramatic scope of the raids and the apparent degree of cooperation between the government and the army were in marked contrast to many previous anti-drug efforts, observers said.
"It seems much more coordinated and comprehensive than what I've seen in the past," said Ana Maria Salazar, who was a deputy assistant secretary of defense involved with drug enforcement in the Clinton administration.
Macedo said that in the months ahead, he will create an office subordinate to the attorney general's office that will take over many of the functions of FEADS.
A senior U.S. official who requested anonymity said the most likely candidate to head the new office is Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, chief of the attorney general's office's specialized unit on organized crime.
FEADS lately has come under increasing scrutiny. Thursday's raids followed last week's arrest of six FEADS agents and an administrative employee in Tijuana. That raid was carried out after two alleged drug traffickers claimed that the agents had offered to free them and return nearly 5 tons of confiscated marijuana in exchange for $2 million.
All six of the Tijuana agents, including the head of the squad, Miguel Uribe, are in jail awaiting trial. Angel Buendia, a top Justice Department official, said more than 20 additional FEADS officials were under investigation nationwide, though none has been detained.
Justice Department officials said Thursday's raids were not a direct response to the Tijuana case but instead represented the continuation of a broader federal initiative that began in December 2000 at the direction of President Vicente Fox.
Facing TV cameras Friday, Fox vowed, "The work is going to continue, and we are not going to rest until these federal agencies have been totally cleaned up." He said the raids would "serve as a warning to the rest of those with dirty hands."
Michael S. Vigil, special agent in charge of the San Diego field office of the DEA, praised Thursday's action as evidence of improved information sharing and coordination among various government branches under the Fox administration.
"We have really seen a lot of advances in terms of the Mexican counter-drug strategy under Vicente Fox," Vigil said. "He has brought many entities into the fray in this campaign against drugs, including the Mexican army and other agencies that in the past did not really work in anti-drug efforts."
Thursday's raids also will probably invigorate calls that more responsibility for anti-drug efforts be moved from the police to the army. Like the Tijuana roundup, Thursday's operations were carried out by army troops in full battle gear as well as police inspectors.
Mexican politicians and the public have flip-flopped over the issue of whether the police or the army should have primary authority in taking on the vast network that funnels drugs from Mexico, Central America and South America. In a poll of nearly 14,000 people taken Thursday night by the Televisa network, 87% of respondents said they thought the army should assume control of the struggle.
But the army also has been tainted by drug-related corruption. Two generals, Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro and Francisco Quiroz Hermosillo, have been imprisoned since 2000 on drug-trafficking charges, in addition to being accused of human rights abuses.
Last fall, an army battalion came under investigation in Sinaloa state after the National Defense Ministry was tipped off that 48 of its 600 soldiers might be engaged in drug smuggling and possession.
Critics of the army's expanded involvement say troops have committed numerous human rights abuses in pursuit of drug criminals.
Nonetheless, Salazar said, probably only the army has the resources to carry out a series of simultaneous actions in separate, far-flung locales.
Macedo, former head of the military prosecutor's office, has maintained good relations with his former army colleagues, Salazar said.
And while the police are widely distrusted by the public, the army has enjoyed a much higher reputation, she said.