Mexico hobbled in drug war by arrests that lead nowhere

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 26, 2010; A01

URUAPAN, MEXICO -- When soldiers swarmed into city halls last year to arrest 10 mayors for alleged ties to an infamous drug cartel, Mexican authorities and their U.S. government allies boasted that the age of impunity for corrupt Mexican politicians was finally over.

The mass detentions of elected officials from bustling towns dominated the news in Mexico, and they were seen as a bold new thrust in a vicious drug war that has left more than 22,000 dead as increasingly powerful drug cartels challenge the authority of the state.

But one by one, the government of President Felipe Calderón has quietly released the politicians as federal prosecutors dropped their cases and as judges ordered them set free for lack of evidence. U.S. diplomats who hailed the arrests now rarely mention them, except as a cautionary tale about how difficult it is to change Mexico's ineffective criminal-justice system.

The episode illustrates a central challenge faced by Mexico, where law enforcement authorities remain hard pressed to win major conspiracy cases, either because they arrest the wrong people or because prosecutors remain hobbled by incompetence.

It also suggests that despite Calderón's pledges of sweeping reform, Mexico has a long way to go in rebuilding its corrupt and hapless police and judiciary.

Nine of the 10 mayors arrested last May in the western state of Michoacan are now free. The latest was released Friday after 11 months in prison. Most of them have returned to their duties at city hall, some after months of incarceration. Several mayors told The Washington Post that they were held in shackles for hours every day, kept in isolated units, and denied access to relatives and lawyers.

None of the cases went to trial. No explanation has been issued, no apologies given. Another two mayors from Michoacan were arrested more recently and remain in jail, their fates unknown.

"I confess that when they arrested the mayors, myself and many people thought, finally!" said Miguel Sarre, a lawyer and professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and a leading expert on the nation's judiciary. "But this shows that either the government was not capable of thorough investigation and making a strong case, or the arrests were politically motivated." He noted that the mayors were incarcerated on the eve of midterm elections.

It is common in Mexico for drug suspects to be arrested with fanfare -- and for their criminal cases to fall apart later. But the arrests of the mayors, all accused of working for a gang of methamphetamine manufacturers and assassins known as La Familia, was hailed by U.S. officials and others as evidence of a new resolve on the part of Calderón's government. Calderón and his drug warriors, observers hoped, would move quickly to other states and attack what U.S. and Mexican experts say is at the core of organized crime in Mexico -- a powerful nexus between corrupt politicians, crooked cops and millionaire criminals. Calderón's government did not arrest politicians in other states.

"They claimed I had received funds during my election campaign from organized-crime groups and that in return I was providing with them protection," said José Cortés Ramos, the mayor of Aquila, Michoacan, who was released after a month in prison. He asked, "How could we offer protection?" His local police "don't even have the guns they need," he said.

"I think that the federal government's operations against organized crime aren't a bad thing," Cortés said. "They are good. But we don't see any results. We don't see any results because the number of violent shootouts and killings isn't going down. Just the opposite."

Several of the arrested mayors belonged to Calderón's own center-right National Action Party, and Michoacan is the state where Calderón was born and raised, where he launched the military against the cartels in December 2006.

"There was immediately a perception that the arrests were politically motivated," said David A. Shirk, a specialist on Mexico's judiciary who directs the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "It looked suspicious, coming right before the elections, but the government was given the benefit of the doubt, because of the level of threat they face from organized crime."

In 2008, at the urging of the United States, the Mexican legislature gave the government new legal tools to prosecute organized-crime cases, allowing the state to hold suspects for almost three months without charges and to use testimony from confidential informants and government wiretaps.

"But the fact that they couldn't build a case against the mayors, it looks bad," Shirk said. "It really shows the challenges Mexico faces, and how law enforcement has to become much better at what it does."

For its part, the U.S. government is spending $1.3 billion in its Merida Initiative aid package: attempting to bolster the rule of law in Mexico by employing FBI instructors to train federal police detectives at a new academy and by sending Mexican prosecutors to U.S. classrooms in hopes of transforming the judiciary. The Obama administration has asked Congress for another $310 million for 2011.

"The cartels never pressured me to cooperate. They never called me," said Antonio González, a Xerox dealer and mayor of Uruapan, a bustling city in the heart of Michoacan's avocado country.

During his eight months in jail, González said, investigators told him that they had been listening in on his phone calls for six months. "I kept waiting to see some evidence of my crime," said González, who spent the days jumping an imaginary rope and working on his memoirs.

González recalls being shoved by masked federal agents into helicopters and buses. " 'Here comes another package. Just another package,' they yelled. And in that moment I was no longer a person but a package," he said, "I wasn't Antonio González any longer. I was a package."

He said the accusations against him came from anonymous tips. "My lawyers told me: 'This is a joke. Any lawyer can see that they don't have any evidence against you. There's no way you'll even spend the 40 days here. You should be out in a couple of days,' " said González, who belongs to Calderón's party.

He says he was interrogated by a prosecutor who badgered him to confess that he once had lunch with a cartel member named "Mr. Gómez," whom González says he does not remember.

"This was all based in rumors. Rumors and lies. They were looking for a scapegoat and people talk, perhaps for political reasons," González said. "It was a horrible experience, just horrible."

Mexican prosecutors declined to discuss the mayors' cases.

"The government is abusing its use of secrecy," said Arturo Hernández, the attorney for González. "This is a time in which we're seeing an excessive use of force by the authorities. There is an exaggerated psychological pressure on detainees: People are not allowed to speak to their families or attorneys. They pressure you to admit to the charges against you."

Leonel Godoy Rangel, governor of Michoacan, complained that the federal government treated the mayors like criminals but acted with little evidence; he said the mayors deserve an apology.

Interior Secretary Fernando Gómez-Mont said no apology will be forthcoming. The mayors were released because judges found insufficient evidence, he said, not because "their innocence has been proven."

Researcher Michael E. Miller contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company