Unsung Prosecutor Brought A Shadowy Trade to Justice

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.

He spoke of his hopes for his children and his country. He wished for a Mexico free from the gruesome violence, which has only gotten worse lately: Yet another headless corpse was suspended from a bridge in Ciudad Juarez this week.

He feared that Mexico could become like Colombia, where drug traffickers in the 1980s nearly took over the country. Unless the traffickers were defeated, he said, "our children are going to be suffering tomorrow."

He worked in dim light; perhaps it was more soothing than the usual harsh fluorescent lights of bureaucracy. During that first interview, two small sticks of Japanese incense burned on a table near his desk, which was piled high with indictment papers for alleged assassins and drug traffickers.

Though he lamented America's demand for drugs, and the fact that drug cartels bought most of their guns north of the border, Vasconcelos didn't blame anyone but Mexico for Mexico's problems.

He railed about corrupt police officers, whom he called "criminals dressed as public servants," and was angry about how deeply the drug cartels had penetrated his government.

He described a remarkable system in which the prosecutors working under him were organized into small cells. Each cell reported only to him, and they didn't talk to each other. "Only I see all the information," he said. "That helps prevent leaks."

In addition to his calm, there was an incredible purposefulness about Vasconcelos. He didn't talk very often to the press, and he agreed to meet with us only after repeated requests. But once he started, he talked for two hours.

He was particularly proud of the capture of Benjamin Arellano Felix, one of the most wanted men in Mexico and the United States. His 2002 arrest by military commandos, acting on intelligence developed by Vasconcelos's team, was one of Mexico's biggest victories against the drug cartels.

A few hours after Arellano Felix was in handcuffs, Vasconcelos met the man he had been tracking for five years and found him "smart but very, very cold."

"I told him he had been lucky before," Vasconcelos said, "but that this time he lost."

Vasconcelos played down his role and gave lavish credit to the DEA and the Mexican military. And, indeed, on the day after the arrest, there was little or no mention of Vasconcelos in the papers.

So little has been said about him now, after his death, that some of his friends are dismayed. Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz, who worked with Vasconcelos and was the top anti-drug prosecutor in the late 1990s, said he and others were upset that President Felipe Calderón spoke so sparingly about Vasconcelos at a memorial service Thursday.

"Many of the medals that some people won in the last few years were not really theirs -- they were won by the work of José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos," Gonzalez said in a telephone interview yesterday. "He will be remembered for his courage. And he will be a guide for the next generation of people who will fight against organized crime."

Vasconcelos left the attorney general's office four months ago to oversee Calderón's push to overhaul Mexico's outdated and often corrupt judicial system.

In Mexico, speculation is rampant about whether the plane crash was the work of drug cartels. Mexicans have long been accustomed to investigations that never seem to get to the bottom of high-profile deaths, and many suspect something sinister despite government assurances that initial indications suggest an accidental crash.

Vasconcelos stayed on in a harrowing job for years longer than duty required, bravely serving his country without fanfare, until the moment he died, at 51.

We can't help but imagine that in the last seconds of his life, as the plane hurtled toward the ground, he was calm -- and not terribly surprised.

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