In the middle, and on the run

Both Mexican military, rival traffickers target man who once ruled a region

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

PETATLAN, MEXICO -- As a two-term mayor and protege of the governor, Rogaciano Alva ruled this region with a pistol shoved into his belt. He exported truckloads of marijuana, opium poppies and illegal timber from the rugged Sierra Madre, and assembled a paramilitary army to enforce his will, according to law enforcement officials and residents.

Alva is now in hiding, pursued as an enemy of the state. After losing his political immunity in the 2006 election that brought President Felipe Calderón to power, Alva became a target of both the government and rival drug traffickers, adding to the unrelenting carnage across the southwestern state of Guerrero, authorities said.

The violence that has claimed more than 16,000 lives in Mexico over the past three years pits the drug cartels against the government. But Alva's bloody rise and fall show that it also pits Calderón, whose offensive has been strongly backed by the United States, against entrenched political forces that allowed the traffickers to thrive.

According to U.S. and Mexican officials, the cartels operated for years under a tacit agreement with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated Mexico for seven decades. That accord permitted illegal activity as long as the violence was contained. Corrupt local officials and police often looked the other way or actively assisted the traffickers.

Calderón, who represents the National Action Party (PAN), effectively ended that understanding by turning the Mexican military on the cartels after taking office. The offensive transformed public officials such as Alva, who also served as president of the state cattlemen's association for 15 years, into outlaws.

"When there was a new set of rules, he lost his political cover,'' Interior Minister Fernando Gómez Mont said of Alva.

As recently as 18 months ago, Alva strolled openly in the Petatlan square, wearing his trademark cowboy hat and boots, surrounded by bodyguards. He negotiated agriculture policy with the state government, posed for the local newspaper holding an automatic rifle, raised prize stallions and cattle on his nearby ranch and presided over town rodeos.

Alva, known locally as Don Roga and El Señor del Sombrero, was one of Mexico's most notorious caciques, the term for strongmen who maintain all-encompassing control over their regions. But in addition to being a prominent member of the PRI, authorities said, Alva amassed a fortune working for the Sinaloa cartel, using his sway over impoverished communities in the fertile mountains of the Sierra Madre to consolidate control over poppy and marijuana production.

As his political fortunes were reversed, Alva was no longer untouchable. On consecutive days last year, rivals killed 17 people during attempts on his life. In the second, gunmen mowed down 10 people, including Alva's two sons, in front of his house in Petatlan, about 20 miles from the resort cities of Zihuatenejo and Ixtapa, and kidnapped his daughter. They also drove him underground.

"He is a criminal," said Heriberto Salinas, who commands the Guerrero state police. "He is a person of political and social influence in the region, and over time he became contaminated by the other side, the criminal class, and that's where he is right now."

Even now, Alva's presence is felt from government offices in Chilpancingo, the state capital, to the remote communities of the Sierra Madre. Authorities said he commands a private army for Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the most wanted man in Mexico and the head of the Sinaloa cartel. (Forbes magazine recently named Guzman the 41st most powerful person in the world.)

Alva has surfaced once since the assassination attempts. He declared his innocence in a telephone interview with journalist Uriza Garcia, who knew him from covering the cattlemen's union.

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