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The Face of Mexico’s Narco-Spy Scandal

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Times Staff Writers

Nahum Acosta’s rise from elementary school teacher in this hardscrabble border city to a prestigious job on President Vicente Fox’s travel staff made him the epitome of “local boy makes good.” And he never forgot his roots.

After landing the job at Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House, he made frequent visits here in Sonora state, kept in touch with friends and delivered the favors that a man in his position could bestow. He procured musical instruments and computers for schools, a running track for the sports complex, even Interpol’s help in the search for the missing daughter of a local journalist.

Mexican prosecutors say Acosta was also doing favors for organized crime.

The prosecutors, who arrested him Feb. 3, have accused Acosta of selling sensitive information about Fox’s travel itinerary to a Sonora-based operative of the drug-trafficking cartel headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

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Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha says the case against the 42-year-old suspect is serious and convincing, but still secret. Without filing charges, prosecutors have leaked unconfirmed bits of evidence to newspapers: that Acosta got calls on his cellphone from the alleged cartel operative, Arturo Beltran Leyva; sent him coded e-mails; visited a house owned by Beltran’s sister-in-law; and received about $100,000 in bank deposits over the last few months.

From a detention center in Mexico City, a distraught Acosta denied the charges in a telephone interview Thursday with the newspaper Milenio. He said he was being framed by enemies in the Mexican army unit that guards Fox and that has feuded with the civilian travel office over which should control the arrangements during presidential trips.

“My life and my family are being destroyed,” he told the paper’s editor. “They don’t have a single proof against me, nor will they find any. There is none.”

Yet both Fox and his political foes have reacted with alarm, accepting the startling premise that Guzman, Mexico’s most wanted criminal, managed to place a mole in the country’s highest sanctum of political power.

Fox’s election in 2000 ended seven decades of one-party domination, but his six-year term is winding down in disappointment over his failure to win political battles to bring about promised economic and legal reforms. The narco-spy scandal has stirred criticism that he is losing the drug war as well, and putting his life at risk.

Critics have been saying for years that the security screening procedures for people who work close to Fox or have access to sensitive information is inadequate.

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Nahum Acosta was such a person: His job was to inspect the places where Fox was to speak and sleep, arrange the seating at places Fox was to visit, and orchestrate the arrivals and departures of the presidential motorcade. Sometimes he traveled with the Mexican leader, but more often preceded him to handle the logistics.

Until the case against him was made public a week ago, few Mexicans knew of Acosta. Now they are asking who he is and how he got so close to the president.

Here in Agua Prieta, Acosta has gone from local hero to a source of shame for bringing notoriety on the desert city where he launched his career.

“Many of the people who just last week were dropping Nahum’s name now cannot seem to recall who he is,” said Gregorio Cruz, editor of the Agua Prieta newspaper La Frontera.

Those who still acknowledge their friendship with Acosta say he is the victim of some elaborate political reprisal or shake their heads in disbelief at the charges.

“The only comment I will make is, I am confused,” said Mayor David Figueroa, godfather to the youngest of Acosta’s three children.

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Others say the arrest demonstrates the reach of drug traffickers’ tentacles in Agua Prieta. The city of 100,000 people, near Douglas, Ariz., is the border transit point on a smuggling route for drugs and illegal migrants that begins in South America.

No one here can say with certainty that Acosta had drug cartel connections in town. Many remember him as a gregarious, ambitious man who knew just about everyone and freely gave out his cellphone number.

One of nine children whose father abandoned the family when his mother was pregnant with his youngest sibling, Acosta was obsessed with making something of his life, said childhood friend Jorge Ariel Estrada.

As a boy in Bacobampo, a poor agricultural town in southern Sonora state, Acosta was always striving to get ahead, Estrada said. If Acosta wasn’t picking cotton to make an extra peso, he was selling sweets or shining shoes. And as far back as Estrada can remember, Acosta had his eye on politics.

Acosta went to teachers colleges in the northern states of Durango and Tamaulipas before moving in the mid-1980s to Agua Prieta, the kind of energetic town where an ambitious young man could make a mark. He landed a job at Leon Vicario Elementary School but worked on the side to supplement his $700 monthly salary and took law courses.

He and his wife, Evelia, started a tortilla factory and shop, and he developed a niche market in photography, taking pictures of drug seizures and selling them to police to illustrate the evidence.

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Acosta gravitated to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which dominated Mexican politics for most of the 20th century, and distinguished himself as an unpaid grass-roots organizer. Veterans in the party, known as the PRI, said he canvassed poor barrios, found out what services were lacking and got City Hall to deliver them.

In the mid-1990s, the PRI rewarded Acosta with a position as head of the National Migration Institute’s office in Torreon, in the state of Coahuila.

There, federal prosecutors say, Acosta was suspected of selling migration documents to drug smugglers but was never interrogated or charged with a crime. The allegation, which surfaced in court papers last week, is the earliest known blight on Acosta’s record. But, if true, it was no obstacle to his later employment at the president’s side.

After returning to Agua Prieta in the late 1990s, Acosta despaired of waiting his turn to become a candidate for local office and left the PRI. He joined the Democratic Revolution Party, a leftist opposition group, but did not stay long. In 1999 he became a member of Fox’s center-right National Action Party, or PAN.

His organizing talents landed him a job as the party’s secretary for government action, helping residents secure the same municipal services that he had arranged in the name of the PRI.

“If you asked him for a favor, he couldn’t say no,” said Jose Coronado, the PAN’s local president.

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After Fox’s victory in 2000, the new president invited PAN faithful to submit resumes for hundreds of patronage jobs in the federal bureaucracy. Manuel Espino, a former party chief in Sonora, was named head of Fox’s travel office and reserved four slots on his staff for Sonorans.

Acosta was hired, in part, on the recommendation of Figueroa, the current mayor who at the time was statewide PAN president. Like almost everyone else who knew Acosta, Figueroa was impressed by his drive and ability to deliver favors.

If Acosta was doing favors for drug traffickers at the time, Fox’s screening procedure at Los Pinos was not set up to detect him as a security threat. In that way, critics say, nothing changed after the PRI era.

“The government still hires on the basis of personal patronage,” said Raul Benitez Manaut, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “The entire government is this way: the police, the states and the Congress. It is how people build power, how they form their own mafias, their fiefdoms.”

Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Fox’s first national security advisor, conducted a study soon after the president took office and turned up what he called alarming lapses of security in “telephone and computer access and circulation of sensitive information in Fox’s vicinity.”

With input from the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI, Aguilar Zinser and a team of experts submitted a two-volume report with recommendations that included mandatory lie detector tests for all Los Pinos employees with access to the president or sensitive information. The recommendations were ignored, said Aguilar Zinser, who later served as U.N. ambassador but was fired by Fox in 2003 after making comments critical of the U.S.

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Meanwhile, tension developed between Fox’s army security detail and his travel staff, which under Espino usurped some of the army’s responsibilities for arranging trips. The tension persisted after Espino left Los Pinos in late 2001 and Acosta became the right-hand man to his replacement, Enrique Ruiz Sanchez.

By all accounts, Acosta kept his head down and did his job well, tirelessly arranging Fox’s grueling schedule of two or three trips per week.

“He was the first contact from the president’s office,” Guillermo Anaya, the mayor of Torreon, told the newspaper Reforma. “He was very diligent, pleasant and open to collaborating so that the trip would turn out well.”

Acosta earned $7,164 a month, more than 10 times his teacher’s salary, and became an apparent model of upward mobility.

Two years ago, he moved his family from Agua Prieta to a rented three-bedroom apartment in a Mexico City suburb and enrolled their children -- Berencie, 11; Nahum, 7; and Benabel, 5 -- in a private school run by the conservative Roman Catholic Legion of Christ order.

With Fox due to leave office next year, Acosta began telling friends last month about an ambition to run for mayor of Agua Prieta.

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But by then, Acosta was under suspicion of having contacts with the Juarez cartel, which has left a trail of blood across Mexico in recent months while muscling in on the turf of rival drug-smuggling gangs. The Juarez organization has joined forces with Guzman’s Sinaloa-based cartel.

As part of a two-nation investigation of the cartel, Mexican federal police periodically send the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration long lists of U.S. phone numbers that have been called from Mexico. Last year, after the DEA identified one of those numbers as Beltran’s U.S. cellphone, Mexican police traced several calls from the phone to Acosta’s cellphone, a Mexican prosecutor said Saturday.

The presidential aide’s movements, phones, e-mail and bank accounts were put under surveillance.

In December, he was spotted at a home in the state of Mexico owned by the wife of Beltran’s brother Arturo, prosecutors said. Mexican officials have identified the Beltran brothers as top lieutenants of cartel boss Guzman, who is their cousin.

On Feb. 3, Acosta was summoned to the office of Gen. Armando Tamayo, chief of the president’s army security staff. Federal police were waiting and placed him under arrest. They seized his cellphone and his computer at Los Pinos and searched his apartment.

Jose Patino, Acosta’s lawyer, acknowledged that Beltran had made one of the more than 500 incoming calls that prosecutors registered on his client’s cellphone. But the lawyer insisted that Acosta did not answer or return the call.

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“He does not know that criminal,” the lawyer said. “He gets lots of calls from people he does not know.”

The lawyer also asserted that the Acosta family’s assets consisted of nothing more than $4,000 in savings, two vehicles, the tortilla operation and two houses in Agua Prieta bought with government loans.

And if Acosta had visited the house of Beltran’s sister-in-law, the lawyer said, he would not have known it was hers; he was shopping randomly for a larger home.

A judge has yet to rule on a government request to hold Acosta for 90 days without formal charges while the investigation continues. But Fox set the tone for a vigorous national debate on security by declaring last week that drug cartel infiltrators had “reached the level of the presidency.”

The opposition-led Congress has called public hearings this week. Mexicans are asking whether a drug cartel would dare try to assassinate a president. Some law enforcement experts speculate that drug lords, if they indeed had an informant in Los Pinos, might have been more interested in intelligence on political or police matters than on Fox’s movements.

Whatever the motive, said Mexico City political analyst Alfonso Zarate, “organized crime was apparently able to penetrate the presidential residence.”

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“This is a clear signal that the narcos have no limits,” he added. “If the presidency, Mexico’s true cornerstone of power, cannot stop the corrupting power of the narcos, then it cannot be stopped anywhere.”

Kraul reported from Agua Prieta and Boudreaux from Mexico City.

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