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Mexican Drug Czar Fired, Charged With Drug Corruption


March-April 1997

Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, Mexico's highest ranking anti-drug official, was fired and arrested on charges that he accepted bribes in exchange for protecting a high-level Mexican drug trafficker ten weeks after he was appointed. Gutierrez's arrest was announced on February 18 at an Army Day celebration in Mexico City (John Ward Anderson, "Mexico Fires Anti-Drug Czar in Bribe Probe," Washington Post, February 19, 1997, p. A1; Julia Preston, "A General in Mexico's Drug War Is Dismissed on Narcotics Charges," New York Times, February 19, 1997, p. A1; Andrew Downie, "Mexican drug fighter praised by U.S. is arrested," Houston Chronicle, February 19, 1997, p. 14A; Joseph B. Frazier, "Mexico's top drug fighter jailed in scandal," Chicago Sun-Times, February 20, 1997, s. 1, p. 20).

Mexico's Defense Secretary Gen. Enrique Cervantes Aguirre said Mexican authorities began investigating Gutierrez on February 6 after they received a tip that he had moved into an expensive apartment "whose rent could not be paid for with the wage received by a public servant." An investigation revealed that the apartment was made available to Gutierrez by an employee of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the alleged leader of Mexico's Juarez drug cartel. Mexican authorities also obtained a recording of Gutierrez and Carrillo Fuentes in which Gutierrez allegedly discussed payments to be made to him in exchange for ignoring Carrillo Fuentes' illegal drug activities. Gutierrez was taken into custody and charged with bribery, maladministration of justice and facilitating the transportation of cocaine. "During recent years, Gen. Gutierrez Rebollo deceived his superiors, defrauded the confidence they placed him in, worked against Mexico's national security and damaged the combined institutional forces against narcotics trafficking," said Cervantes. The general faces a court martial and may be tried for treason.

Gutierrez, 62, a 42-year army veteran, had been appointed in December 1996 as the director of the National Institute to Combat Drugs (INCD), the Mexican equivalent of the U.S. DEA. Because of his long-standing reputation for honesty and incorruptibility, he had been named by Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo especially to combat corruption in Mexico's anti-drug law enforcement.


U.S. officials were not aware of the investigation into Gutierrez's activities and were not notified until it was made public on February 18 after army troops raided three of Gutierrez' homes. During the two-week period of the investigation, U.S. officials did not have contact with the drug czar, believing he was sick. Gutierrez had been admitted to a hospital on February 7 after being confronted about the drug allegations. Prior to the scandal, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, called Gutierrez "an honest man" and "a guy of absolute unquestioned integrity." Eric Rubin, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said, "It's one thing not to know he was corrupt, but it's another thing not to even know that he's been [under investigation] for two weeks." One senior U.S. law enforcement official said, "This points to a major intelligence community failure." Mexico Foreign Minister Jose Angel Gurria said Mexican officials did not want to tell the U.S. about the probe until substantial evidenc was amassed, so as not to compromise their chief law enforcers if their suspicions were unfounded (Stanley Meisler and Elizabeth Shogren, "Mexico Told U.S. Nothing of Probe Into Drug Czar," Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1997, p. A20).


U.S. officials began assessing whether confidential sources and methods had been compromised by Gutierrez's corruption. Gutierrez had been briefed on classified information during a December 3, 1996 meeting with U.S. officials to discuss the militarization of the anti-drug effort and delivery of U.S. military hardware to Mexico. He had access to Mexican intelligence and intelligence provided to Mexico by the U.S., including anti-drug investigations, wiretaps, interdiction programs and operations, and informant identities. U.S. officials also began assessing the damage done by some of Gutierrez's subordinates at the INCD who had criminal drug contacts. "The potential for damage could be considerable," said a senior U.S. law enforcement official (Pierre Thomas, "U.S. Assesses Damage Linked to Mexican Drug Official," Washington Post, February 20, 1997, p. A30; Julia Preston, "Mexico's Jailed Anti-Drug Chief Had Complete Briefings in U.S.," New York Times, February 20, 1997, p. A1; Mark Fineman, "Fallout From Mexican Drug Scandal Hits U.S.," Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1997, p. A1; Gary Fields, "Scandal throws scare into U.S. drug policy," USA Today, February 21, 1997, p. A9)


Gutierrez's arrest occurred two weeks before the Clinton Administration was legally obligated to announce its annual certification of countries cooperating with the U.S. in the anti-drug effort. While there was extensive public discussion and congressional opposition to certification, the decision to certify Mexico was widely predicted. The economic and trade sanctions required by decertification would likely have had very adverse consequences to both the Mexican and U.S. economies. Clinton's scheduled summit in Mexico in April, his first as president, would have been diplomatically awkward, if not impossible. The Administration stressed that Mexico's role as the third-largest U.S. trading partner and NAFTA cosigner with the U.S. was an important consideration in whether Mexico would be recertified (John F. Harris, "General's Arrest to Figure in Review of Mexico Drug War," Washington Post, February 21, 1997, p. A13; Clinton Says Mexico's Firmness Is Bright Side of Drug Scandal," New York Times, February 21, 1997, p. A3; Dudley Althaus, "Mexico's scandals don't deter U.S.," Houston Chronicle, February 23, 1997, p. 1A; Pierre Thomas, "U.S. Mexico Trade May Outweigh Anti-Drug Concerns," Washington Post, February 23, 1997, p. A10).


Gutierrez's appointment to head the INCD was part of a strategy by President Zedillo to fight extensive law enforcement corruption by expanding the role of the military in anti-narcotics efforts in the last two years. However, Gutierrez's firing "should be a caution to the civilian authorities and the United States that pushing the military into the war on drugs is not the easy ready solution they thought it was," said Eric Olson of the Washington Office on Latin America in Washington, D.C. The Mexican military "isn't any more resistant to [corruption] than any other institution in society, particularly because of the amount of money involved," said Roderic Camp, a political scientist at Tulane University in New Orleans (John Ward Anderson, "Scandal Exposes Mexican Military's Corruptibility," Washington Post, February 20, 1997, p. A25; Associated Press, "Mexican government encounters setback in its fight against drugs," Virginian-Pilot, February 20, 1997, p. A14; Julia Preston, "Mexican Use of Army to Fight Drugs Worries U.S.," New York Times, February 22, 1997, p. A6).

On February 21, General Jose Luis Chavez Garcia announced that 87 federal police officers in Baja California Norte, a northwestern border state, would be retrained and reassigned, and replaced with 46 military agents. Mexican officials also announced that over the next 32 months, about 3,000 soldiers will temporarily replace the civilian police force in Mexico City, while the police officers attend ethics and other training courses run by the army (Anne-Marie O'Connor, "Mexican Army Agents to Replace Baja Police," Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1997, p. A1; John Ward Anderson, "Soldiers Replace Federal Police in Drug-Wracked Mexican State," Washington Post, February 22, 1997, p. A1; Reuter, "Soldiers Replace Police," Washington Post, March 1, 1997, p. A24).

Even before the scandal, U.S. officials complained about a lack of cooperation by Mexican military officers with U.S. drug agents. Although perceived to be less corrupt than the civilian law enforcement, the Mexican army has repeatedly been accused of drug trafficking allegations, murders and abductions. In one instance in 1991, two army generals and three other officers were implicated in the murder of seven civilian anti-drug agents in Veracruz after the agents discovered the soldiers unloading a plane load of cocaine.


Mexican Army Brigadier General Alfredo Navarro Lara, was arrested on March 17 on charges that he offered a million dollars a month to Brigadier General Jose Luis Chavez Garcia, Mexico's top anti-drug official in Tijuana, to allow narcotics to pass through the region on their way to the U.S. General Navarro Lara is accused of conveying a threat form the Arellano Felix brothers, alleged heads of the Tijuana cartel, that if General Chavez Garcia refused the bribe, they would kill him and his family (Julia Preston, "Another Mexican General Is Arrested and Charged With Links to Drug Cartel," New York Times, March 18, 1997, p. A8; Mark Fineman, "Mexican Army General Arrested on Drug Charges," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), March 18, 1997, p. A3).


On March 10, Mexico named a longtime lawyer and magistrate, Mariano Herran Salvatti, 48, to replace Gutierrez as the head of the INCD. Attorney General Jorge Madrazo said Herran had passed drug, character, and lie detector tests, had his finances checked, and his family investigated before being appointed. Herran, who has very little experience with drug cases, "will do an efficient, loyal and honest job," Madrazo told reporters (Michael Scott, "Mexico Picks Lawyer for Drugs Drive," Washington Post, March 11, 1997, p. A16; Mary Beth Sheridan, "Mexico Names Drug Czar After Vetting," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), March 11, 1997, p. A3).