Unsung Prosecutor Brought A Shadowy Trade to Justice

Mexico's José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos.
Mexico's José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos. (Guillermo Arias - Ap Photo)
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By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 8, 2008

Even in death, José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos let someone else grab the limelight.

Vasconcelos, who had quietly dedicated his life to fighting crime and remaking Mexico, was aboard a government Learjet that crashed Tuesday in a spectacular fireball in downtown Mexico City.

Headlines after the crash focused on the death of Juan Camilo Mouriño, 37, the interior minister, head of domestic security and the second most powerful man in Mexico after the president. Miguel Monterrubio, a popular government spokesman who used to work at the embassy in Washington, was also among the 14 people killed and has been widely lauded.

But in most accounts, Vasconcelos, for years the nation's top organized crime prosecutor, has barely been mentioned. Though he held one of the world's most dangerous jobs, or perhaps because of it, he worked largely out of the spotlight.

"He was not out there making a name for himself," said Joe Bond, a top Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was posted in Mexico and worked closely with Vasconcelos. "He always took second seat, even though he was the main guy leading the war on drugs."

Vasconcelos was a prime target for drug-cartel hit men, and he received many death threats. Last January, Mexican police arrested three men with assault rifles and grenade launchers on charges that they were plotting to kill him. He, his wife and two grown children lived with suffocating security around the clock.

"It was a miserable life for him and his whole family," Bond said. "But he was very focused on doing his job. For us, he was always the guy to go to."

When we first met him in May 2002, he was sitting behind his desk on the upper floor of a government office building in downtown Mexico City. He worked behind a wall of bodyguards, men with machine guns everywhere, at street level, at the elevator, outside his office.

For years, he worked in these conditions, a lawyer trying to outfox the country's most wanted criminals, many of whom had well-equipped armies of their own and ran syndicates worth billions of dollars.

He attended too many funerals for police officers and prosecutors who turned up dead -- many hideously tortured -- at the hands of drug traffickers. With bribes and threats, the narcos have been stunningly successful at turning cops, soldiers and prosecutors into informants or executing them -- or both.

When we asked him about the risk he was taking for a government salary, Vasconcelos shrugged. He said he was just doing his job.

He was unforgettably serene. His black hair was graying, and he had bags under his eyes and the beginnings of a paunch, which we chalked up to his almost caged life, lived largely behind bulletproof glass. He didn't bring up the steel-bending stress he was under, but when we asked about it again, he finally offered that he meditated every day. He said his Catholic faith was important to him.

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