Narco scandals shake elite Mexican federal police force

From the New York Times, Dec. 28, via IHT:

A recent series of indictments and revelations about corrupt federal agents has rocked the attorney general’s office here and undermined one of President Vicente Fox’s few solid accomplishments: the creation of an elite, honest federal force to fight kidnappers and drug dealers.

It has been four years since Fox established the force, known as the Federal Investigation Agency, under the attorney general, aimed at ridding Mexico of the scourge of kidnappers and drug kingpins. Since then the agents and the prosecutors who work with them have won praise here and in Washington as an effective crime fighting force, Mexico’s version of the Untouchables.

But the recent accusations against the force, known by its Spanish acronym, AFI, have shaken that image and undermined Fox’s claim to have dealt a body blow to organized crime. The charges accuse federal agents of doing the bidding of drug traffickers and carrying out kidnappings and extortion plots, the same kind of corruption the agency was created to stop.

In one measure of the problems, a report released recently by the attorney general’s office said 1,493 of the agency’s 7,000 officers had been investigated for possible wrongdoing and 457 had been indicted.

Fox has so far stood by his prosecutors and the director of the AFI, but with the pressure of a presidential election next year, their future is widely seen as uncertain.

Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca said in an interview that the scandals had been blown out of proportion, and he defended the agency’s accomplishments. He said drug dealers had mounted a media campaign to discredit his office and sow confusion and suspicion between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Still, in a sign of the pressure building on his office, Cabeza de Vaca said he intended to revamp and tighten supervision of agents.

“The instances of corruption that have presented themselves are normal for any agency that so intensely fights drug dealing,” he said in an interview on Dec. 22. “What we are going to do now is strengthen our mechanisms of supervision.”

The crisis erupted on Dec. 2, when Mexico’s top drug prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, acknowledged that eight agents in Acapulco had been arrested on charges that they had kidnapped hired assassins working for the Gulf drug cartel and had handed them over to their rivals in the Sinaloa cartel. Five of the agents were later released for lack of evidence; three are still being sought.

The disclosure came after newspapers and Internet sites were sent a grisly videotape showing the torture of four men who admitted being members of the Zetas, killers allied with the Gulf cartel.

At the end of the tape, a gloved hand holding a gun appears and shoots one of the men in the head, killing him.

Although Vasconcelos said there was no evidence that corrupt federal agents had been involved in the videotaped torture or killing, which happened in May, he admitted that agents had been involved in the kidnapping of the Zetas.

The admission added to an intensifying storm of criticism in the public and the press. The government has found itself up against a wall, answering questions about whether its elite federal force was at the beck and call of men like Joaquin Guzmán, the Sinaloa gang’s leader.

Vasconcelos, who oversees the AFI, maintained in an interview on Dec. 22 that the release of the videotape was part of a larger publicity campaign by gangsters to discredit him and the federal agency.

“Every time I combat one cartel they say I am protecting another,” he said. “A media lynching, unfortunately, is the best way to get rid of an adversary in Mexico.”

He said the kidnapping and videotaping had been carefully planned by the Sinaloa cartel to try to link the AFI to the Gulf cartel. One of the tortured men was even taped making a statement that vaguely linked Vasconcelos himself to the Zetas.

Other cases have damaged the agency’s image as well. In recent months the attorney general of the state of Mexico, which surrounds but does not include the capital, came forward to lay out his theory that federal agents were behind an extortion plot that ended in the death last year of Enrique Salinas de Gortari, the brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Two agents have been arrested on extortion charges in that case, and two others have gone into hiding and are being sought for questioning. The federal government has taken over the investigation from the state, frustrating state prosecutors, who say they cannot solve the murder without interrogating the missing agents.

To add to the federal agency’s difficulties, an anonymous letter faxed to the attorney general has accused its director, Genaro García Luna, of taking large sums of money from the Sinaloa cartel.

Although Mexican officials say no evidence has been found to support the accusation, the letter is presumed to have been sent by the Zetas. An internal affairs prosecutor is investigating. García Luna declined to be interviewed about the accusation, and Vasconcelos called the charges false.

Earlier this year, another high-ranking official in the AFI, Domingo Gonzalez, went into hiding after he was accused of accepting $1.5 million from the Sinaloa gang.

See our last post on Mexico, and its permanent narco crisis.