Mexico’s Drug War Goes Down in Flames

Mexico City.

The fiery November 4 crash of a private Lear jet here not a mile from Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, that killed President Felipe Calderon’s closest collaborator Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino was largely buried by the U.S. press, coming as it did on Election Day USA.

As Interior Secretary responsible for internal security, Mourino who had just met with outgoing U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to map out bi-lateral drug war strategies, was the second most powerful official in Mexico.

Also killed in the crash that took a total of 19 lives was Mexico’s former drug czar Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcellos, himself a frequent assassination target for Mexican drug gangs.  Last spring Vasconcellos was replaced as top dog at the SIEDO (“Sub-prosecutor for Special Investigations into Organized Crime”) which he had directed for eight years and appointed special drug war advisor to Calderon.

Despite public incredulity the Calderon administration has fought hard to spin the plane crash as an accident, pinning the mishap on the inexperience of the pilot and co-pilot of the privately owned Lear Jet, both of whom were killed on impact.  Transportation Secretary Luis Tello has held serial press conferences presenting the black box retrieved from the crash and flogging expert testimony from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Aeronautics Administration. The bamboozlement campaign has been accompanied by a burst of government-bought print ads and electronic spots that are designed to boost the president’s credibility as the second anniversary of his chaotic swearing in approaches.

Nonetheless, the public remains archly skeptical. In a country where the government and the media relentlessly fudge and lie about everything from unemployment numbers and the depth of the recession to its questionable successes in the drug war, no one quite believes the plane crash was an accident.  Indeed, ever since writer Sara Sefchovich whose new hot title is “A Country of Lies”, launched an Internet page inviting readers to list Calderon’s biggest lies, the “accident” has been at the top of the list.

The  plane crash in which Mourino and Vasconcellos were killed is an apt metaphor for the current state of Calderon’s drug war, which, after an embarrassing round of high level arrests of anti-drug officials, appears to be similarly going down in flames.

Felipe Calderon first declared his anti-drug crusade just days after being sworn in as Mexico’s president two years ago this December 1st, a job he was awarded in a July 1996 election that half of all Mexicans thought he won by fraud.  In a move to bolster his pretensions of authority, the new president sent 30,000 troops into the field to confront the drug cartels – that number has since increased to 45,000, a third of the Mexican Army.

Since December 2006, 6000 Mexicans have been slain in drug war combat, 4000 alone this year, with no notable reduction in the drug flow north to the U.S.  Hundreds of troops and police officials have perished in the past 23 months in addition to dozens of innocent civilians gunned down by soldiers at highway checkpoints and other collateral damage and over a thousand complaints against the drug war troops have been registered with the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH.)  Between 20 and 30 corpses, many without heads, are clocked in every 24 hours in battleground states like Chihuahua and Sinaloa, with no end in sight.

Rattled by persistent scandal, Mexico’s lead anti-drug agencies are in turmoil and the detention of dozens of top officials in recent months, including the nation’s liaisons to the United Nations Drug Agency, Interpol, and even the U.S. Embassy here, has shaken Washington.

Among those in custody is Santiago Vasconcellos’s replacement at the SIEDO, Noe Ramirez Mandujano, who is reportedly being held on a 40 day investigation warrant at the agency’s heavily fortified headquarters in the Ixtapalapa delegation (borough) of the capital, charged with accepting $450,000 USD monthly payments from a branch of the Sinaloa Cartel under the thumb of the Beltran Leyva brothers. The Beltran Leyvas are presently embroiled in a bloody turf war with their former boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” (“Shorty”) Guzman, the dean of Mexican drug lords.

At the time of his detention, Noe Ramirez served as Mexico’s representative before the United Nations Drug Agency in Vienna.

According to the released testimony of ex-SIEDO intelligence officer Fernando Rivera, now in a U.S.-run witness protection program, agency officials have been servicing the Sinaloa Cartel since 2004.   In addition to Ramirez and Rivera, four military officers have been arrested for feeding drug war intelligence to the Sinaloa boys.

Another drug warrior currently under arraignment is Ricardo Gutierrez who headed up the national office of Interpol and sat on the agency’s international commission.  According to the Interpol Internet page, such commissions “share crucial information about crimes and criminal activity with other police agencies”, a job description that must send shivers down the spine of U.S. drug fighters who worked with Gutierrez. Gutierrez’s successor at Interpol Rodolfo de la Guardia is also in custody.

As a bonus to the public’s incredulity, the Calderon administration is spinning the scandals as “Operation Clean House” (“Limpiaza”), an in-house investigation into drug war corruption, and promotes the revelations of dirty dealing as a “victory” in its anti-drug crusade.  “Operation Clean House” has triggered a festival of stoolies and “soplones” (“snitches”), many of whom are being held incommunicado at the fortress-like SIEDO headquarters in Ixtapalapa. Other key whistleblowers are in U.S. custody – reportedly, it was Washington that tipped Mexican authorities to the Sinaloa Cartel pay-offs after an informer known only as “Felipe” spilled the beans to Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

The current round of recriminations is reminiscent of the 1997 arrest of General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, then head of the Mexican Drug War apparatus under president Ernesto Zedillo, for protecting Juarez Cartel kingpin Amado Carrillo who earned his nickname “The Lord of the Skies” by flying DC-6s loaded with Colombian cocaine into the country under the nose of the Mexican military.  The general, who is now serving a 45-year sentence, was found to be living in a luxury apartment paid for by Carrillo’s agents who showered him with lavish gifts of fine tequila and classic cars. At the time of his arrest, General Gutierrez had just returned from Washington where he attended a White House drug conclave and was lauded by Bill Clinton’s drug czar General Barry McCaffrey as having “an impeccable reputation for integrity.”

One of the more enigmatic personages swept up in the Operation Clean House dragnet is Javier Herrera, once number two at the Federal Investigation Agency or AFI, a knock off of the U.S. FBI, and an entity deemed so corrupt that Calderon has ordered it dismantled.  Herrera was dismissed after his brother, a police commander in the Gulf coast state of Tamaulipas, was cited on a narco-list compiled by the murderous “Zetas”, enforcers for the Gulf Cartel.

The AFI and the Federal Preventative Police or PFP that operates under the aegius of the Secretary of Public Security (SSP), commanded by Calderon disciple Genaro Garcia Luna, have gone nose to nose over drug war jurisdiction ever since 2006 with frequent confrontations between the two agencies, and in cleaning out his desk at the AFI, Javier Herrera carried off a raft of documentation that appears to implicate Garcia Luna in what he terms “a simulation” favoring the Sinaloa Cartel over other drug gangs.

Indeed, the former AFI commander was en route to an interview with a Televisa prime time news show when he was arrested November 17 by the PFP and his documentation confiscated.  According to his lawyer, Sylvia Raquenel Villanueva who presented x-rays to the press, Herrera was beaten so badly that he suffered several broken ribs.

Raquenel Villanueva is herself a Mexican drug war legend.  The lawyer, who has represented many of the nation’s most notorious drug barons, has been repeatedly shot by her clients or their rivals (lung, head, buttocks, and stomach) – one cartel gunslinger plugged her eight times.  Bombs have been tossed at her Monterrey offices and she was once imprisoned for her alleged involvement in the kidnap-killing of a police commander.  Raquenel wears the ultimate badge of her trade – two narco-corridos (drug ballads) have been composed in her honor: “La Mujer de Acero” (“The Woman of Steel”) and “The Ballad of the Bullet-proof Lawyer.”

Despite the daily dollop of scandal hanging over his head, Public Security Secretary Garcia Luna continues to cling to his job, an “Untouchable” in the Chicago sense of the word.  Just this past week (Nov. 25), Garcia Luna’s former personal secretary Mario Arturo Velarde, was dragged into Ixtapalapa for questioning. Velarde is being defended by one-time attorney general Antonio Lozano and high-priced litigator Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, both prominent members of Calderon’s PAN party.  Speculation about why Calderon continues to stick by Garcia Luna centers on two hypothesis: (a) Calderon is reluctant to fire his Secretary of Public Security because it would be the final blow to the president’s credibility and (b) Garcia Luna knows too much.

Calderon’s attorney general Eduardo Medina Mora, who preceded Garcia Luna at the SSP, seems to be cloaked in a similar shroud of impunity.

The disarray in Calderon’s drug war hierarchy has grave implications for both U.S. and Mexican national security. In an interview with Proceso magazine’s J. Jesus Esquivel published this Sunday (Nov. 30), out-going White House drug advisor John Walters warns that Mexico is at risk of becoming a narco-state.

The threat of compromised intelligence looms large.  Nonetheless, Washington now has the legal and diplomatic wherewithal to take matters into its own hands. Under the recently ratified Merida anti-drug Initiative and the ASPAN or North American Security and Prosperity Agreement that provides a framework for the integration of the security apparatuses of the three NAFTA nations, Washington reserves the right to take action south of the border should it feel its national security threatened.

Designated as the U.S. southern security perimeter by the Colorado-based North Command that is charged with protecting the homeland from terrorist infiltration, preventative incursion into Mexico to neutralize the drug cartels is one possible scenario for the incoming U.S. president Barack Obama.

JOHN ROSS is back in the Centro Historico ring to fight the final round with “El Monstruo – True Tales of Dread & Redemption from Mexico City.”  If you have further information write him at or visit





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