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Anti-drug general ousted

Times Staff Writer

In Mexico’s drug war, Gen. Sergio Aponte Polito racked up crime-fighting credentials worthy of the Dark Knight, making record seizures of drugs and weapons and forcing out top Baja California law enforcement officials he accused of corruption and of having links to organized crime.

But in a surprise move Thursday, the general was relieved of his command, abruptly ending his controversial 20-month stint as the leader of President Felipe Calderon’s army-led battle against organized crime in the northern states of Baja California and Sonora.

Aponte policed a region that serves as a major drug-trafficking corridor for some of Mexico’s most powerful criminal groups, including Tijuana’s notorious Arellano Felix cartel. The more than 3,000 troops under his command arrested 1,388 suspects and seized 539 tons of marijuana, 4 tons of cocaine and 1,583 weapons.

The stout, salt-and-pepper-haired general, who broke secretive military tradition by becoming an outspoken public figure who relished the media spotlight, left the military base in Mexicali on Thursday night, but not without first thanking adoring residents through calls to local newspapers.

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The office of the secretary of defense said in a news release that Aponte’s removal was part of a regular rotation of generals and officers nationwide. He is to become president of the Supreme Military Tribunal in Mexico City.

But critics and supporters said the general’s ouster probably was related to his increasingly contentious behavior.

Aponte won broad public support for aggressive tactics against drug gangs whose turf wars have left hundreds dead here, but he generated controversy by denouncing scores of police officers, prosecutors and officials by name in blistering letters published in newspapers across the state.

With such an aggressive general benched, some critics questioned Calderon’s commitment to the drug war, saying he appeared to be sending a signal that his get-tough campaign against traffickers, which has included deploying 40,000 troops to several states, stops short of attacking entrenched government corruption.

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Aponte took aim at the culture of impunity enjoyed for years by Baja California leaders with Calderon’s conservative National Action Party, who many say were complicit in the rise of the drug cartels.

“What he did was enormously valuable,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana’s Binational Center for Human Rights. “The people supported him. The only ones who didn’t were organized crime and officials in state government.”

But Aponte’s critics say he was his own worst enemy, done in by his big ego and reckless accusations, many leveled without evidence. His ouster was unfortunate, but necessary to preserve basic democratic rights, some observers said.

“When citizens are desperate for security, they will often trade their liberties and due process,” said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, “and in the end may create a monster that is as dangerous as the other threat they are concerned about.”

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Regardless of whether he is hero or demagogue, the general’s departure deals at least a temporary blow to Mexico’s offensive against cartels, experts and U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials said. U.S. agencies viewed the general as a strong ally in the drug war.

“He was very responsive and cooperative,” said a U.S. law enforcement official who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the news media. “He was instrumental in fighting the narco-trafficking groups, kidnapping rings and arms smugglers.”

Aponte’s aggressive tactics didn’t stop with criminal groups. His first letter in April accused Tijuana’s anti-kidnapping chief, among others, of running a kidnapping ring. He also said a former deputy attorney general had been protecting organized crime groups.

The letter sent shock waves through state government. Many of the more than 50 accused officials quit or fled, in shame or guilt. A few fought back, only to back down under withering public pressure, and despite fear that the general’s accusations were snaring innocent people.

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In the following months, Aponte emerged as a Gen. George Patton-like figure, full of bravado marred by prima donna behavior. He once complained that state officials showed disrespect by seating him behind a partition at a public event.

He took offense when the generally fawning news media reported that he got choked up during a speech at City Hall. His emotional moment, he wrote in his second letter, came at having to see his troops standing in formation next to corrupt local and state police.

An elusive public figure, Aponte lived in a park-like oasis hidden behind the high walls of the military base in Mexicali. His daily whereabouts was a closely guarded secret. When he traveled, a convoy of Hummers bristling with 50-caliber weapons led the way.

As his popularity grew, people started referring to him affectionately as “Mi General.” Many wanted him to run for attorney general, and a famous band said it was going to write a traditional ballad, or corrido, about him.

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The series of events that culminated in his removal apparently began three weeks ago at an upscale Brazilian restaurant in Mexicali, where someone in his entourage got into a dispute with a band over a song and someone fired a shot over the salad bar.

Early media reports cited rumors that the general may have fired the shot, but the director of the state police, who also is a major in the Mexican army, eventually admitted guilt and was forced to resign.

Aponte’s second missive, a rambling 23-page letter published Sunday, accused state officials of a conspiracy to embarrass him.

“It appeared I was put in front of the inquisition, and left to be burned at the stake or sent to the firing squad,” says a rough translation of Aponte’s letter.

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Baja California Gov. Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan denied asking for his departure, as did other top political leaders. But privately, many state leaders were glad to show the general the door.

“It’s sad, because he won the trust and confidence of the people,” said one state official who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. “But then he abused their trust and the media’s favorable coverage by attacking many innocent people.”

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richard.marosi@latimes.com

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