MEXICO CITY — Operation Cleanup was a showcase effort to stamp out corruption within Mexico’s elite organized-crime bureau. Twenty-five top law-enforcement officials were arrested in the weeks after the operation was launched in 2008, most accused of acting as highly paid moles for a leading drug cartel, the very villains the officials were supposed to be chasing.
Today, the cases against them are a shambles, yet another example of Mexico’s systemic corruption and a weak judiciary unable to fix it. The operation is also the most high-profile prosecution among the many that fell apart under the government of President Felipe Calderon, which ended nearly five months ago.
This week, a federal judge freed the highest-ranking of those ensnared by Operation Cleanup. Noe Ramirez Mandujano, Mexico’s former anti-drug czar, was absolved and released from prison, where he had awaited this outcome for 4 1/2 years.
In a particularly scathing ruling issued Monday, Judge Mauricio Fernandez de la Mora said government prosecutors used sketchy testimony from unidentified “protected witnesses” who lied, made up evidence and were clearly coached.
One of the government’s “star” protected witnesses, code-named Jennifer, had testified that Ramirez received $450,000 from the once-powerful Beltran Leyva cartel in exchange for inside information, including the timing of raids and sensitive security details. Fernandez indicated that the story seems to have been fabricated.
In addition to releasing Ramirez, Fernandez ordered Jesus Murillo Karam, the attorney general in the new government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, to investigate whether prosecutors in charge of Operation Cleanup broke the law in the attempt to build their cases.
The top prosecutor in charge was Eduardo Medina Mora, Calderon’s first attorney general who now works for Peña Nieto’s government as its ambassador to Washington.
Of the 25 officials arrested in 2008, only 13 were formally charged. Of those, eight have been released, including the most senior officials in the group. Four are in prison awaiting judicial rulings on their cases and a fifth was acquitted of charges related to Operation Cleanup.
The investigation targeted a bureau within the federal attorney general’s office known then as SIEDO, the top body for prosecuting organized crime, including drug trafficking. Ramirez headed it. (The agency has since changed its acronym slightly but not its duties.)
Ramirez has not commented since his release. Another of the accused, Victor Garay, a former federal police chief who was freed late last year, bitterly complained to reporters then that he was a political pawn in a scheme to weaken the police force. He accused prosecutors of faking evidence against him by using confidential informants who are nothing more than “confessed criminals.”
At the time, the arrests of Ramirez and the others represented a stunning allegation of high-level graft and a setback for an agency generally trusted by U.S. officials working closely with their Mexican counterparts in pursuing drug traffickers. Although U.S. and Mexican officials for the most part were able to move on, the allegations underscored a lingering mistrust that has characterized the relationship.
The collapse of the cases underscored the long way Mexico has to go in revamping its sclerotic judiciary. It is not clear whether prosecutors proved inept and unable to mount a viable prosecution, or whether Ramirez and his codefendants were victims of internecine rivalries and political infighting in which judicial procedures are often used to execute vendettas.
In addition, the use of confidential witnesses is a controversial tool added amid Mexico’s efforts to reform its courts. But critics say they are too easily abused in a system still so flawed. “Jennifer,” for example, is reported to be a key witness in a suspiciously large number of prosecutions. (Mexican authorities for some reason have a penchant for giving female names to male secret informants.)
It is similarly unclear whether Murillo, the new attorney general under Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, will have any better success at cleaning house. Incoming officials in his office have indicated that they found a morbidly dysfunctional agency. Yet much of the deep corruption dates to the many decades the PRI was in charge before losing the presidency in 2000.