Handpicked for the job by the Mexican president, praised by the U.S. government for his honesty, army Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo seemed the perfect man to serve as drug czar. But barely 11 weeks into the job, Gutierrez Rebollo was fired in February 1997 and later convicted of working for a cartel he was tasked to fight.
To this day, the Gutierrez Rebollo case remains a prime example of the extent to which drug corruption can permeate Mexico’s most important institutions.
Gutierrez Rebollo died Thursday of complications of cancer at a military hospital in Mexico City, the Defense Ministry said. He was 79 and had been serving a 40-year sentence, most recently in a hospital because of his illness.
In the late 1990s, Gutierrez Rebollo was accused of aiding the then-dominant Juarez cartel headed at the time by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the “Lord of the Skies” — so known for his practice of flying planes packed with cocaine — and one of the early grandmasters of Mexican drug trafficking.
The embarrassing allegations came shortly after Gutierrez Rebollo was appointed the head of Mexico’s equivalent of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He had come highly recommended by top government officials and enthusiastically endorsed by Washington, based on his 42-year career in the military, which had included heading drug interdiction operations.
Instead, officials said after his arrest in 1997, he was easing cocaine shipments and accepting millions of dollars in bribes from Carrillo Fuentes. He had arrested Carrillo Fuentes a decade earlier, but the drug lord was released for lack of evidence.
Gutierrez Rebollo was sentenced to 40 years in jail, but his family and lawyer maintained his innocence and were pursuing an appeal at the time of his death. In 2000, he won a petition to be allowed to retain his rank. The day before he died, a judge granted his petition for house arrest — he would have been able to serve out his sentence at home had his health improved.
The Gutierrez Rebollo case represented the most egregious case of military corruption in Mexico until last year, when six senior military officials were arrested on similar charges. However, those prosecutions, among the last in the government of former President Felipe Calderon, fell apart, and the officers were released soon after current President Enrique Peña Nieto took office last December.
It has been reported that Gutierrez Rebollo served as a model for a corrupt general in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film, “Traffic.”
Gutierrez Rebollo was born April 19, 1934, in the town of Jonacatepec in the state of Morelos just south of the capital, where he is expected to be buried. He was a career army officer, serving in numerous regional command positions until working his way nearly to the top of the military hierarchy — before his spectacular fall.
Twice married, Gutierrez Rebollo had four children and three grandchildren, according to the Associated Press.