Global Policy Forum

Familiar Foe for Mexico's New Leader: Corruption


By Sam Dillion

The New York Times
July 6, 2000

Minutes after Mexicans learned they had elected Vicente Fox Quesada as their president, they watched him glare into the cameras in his first nationally broadcast interview and issue a sober warning to drug traffickers.

"To the criminals, those who commit violence and live outside the law, they should know the one thing we don't want in Mexico is criminality, violence, drug trafficking, organized crime," Mr. Fox said Sunday evening after Mexico's presidential balloting. "To them I say, this is the last call."

In the days since, Mr. Fox has vowed that fighting organized crime will be one of his highest priorities, and he has outlined plans to overhaul Mexico's federal law enforcement institutions. His proposals would require several constitutional amendments, and, experts said today, they suggest that he intends to bring the power of the presidency to bear in the fight against crime more than his recent predecessors.

Mr. Fox has pledged to tear down much of the tottering edifice of corrupt police forces and special prosecutors' offices that constitute Mexico's federal law enforcement system. Command of various parts of this bureaucracy is splintered among the attorney general, the Interior Ministry and the armed forces.

The president-elect is not the first recent Mexican leader to announce grand plans for ending corruption. But none of the others have offered plans quite this ambitious, the experts said.

"Fox's plans have to be sweeping because the process of rot and decomposition has advanced so far," said Ernesto Lopez Portillo, a consultant to the Mexican Senate who co-authored a 1994 study of Mexico's criminal justice system.

Historians say the corruption of the police and prosecutors traces back at least to the 19th century. But in recent decades, graft has worsened greatly as control over the police has been shifted, from scandal to scandal, between the Interior Ministry and the attorney general's office.

Under Mr. Fox's proposals, the attorney general, who commands the federal police and oversees prosecutors, would be eliminated completely, and the interior minister would be stripped of police functions, the experts said.

Control of the federal police would pass to a new cabinet-level Department of Public Security, and the work of thousands of federal prosecutors would be administered by a new, as-yet-unnamed agency.

The changes are aimed at reducing the police corruption that grew dangerously in the 1970's, when Mexico faced several small guerrilla insurgencies. Successive presidents gave the federal police, especially an elite corps known as the Federal Security Directorate, license to wipe out the subversives using whatever means necessary.

By the early 1980's, the guerrillas had been suppressed. But the Security Directorate, Mexico's political police, had acquired an array of extralegal skills they began to use in the service of drug traffickers. After agents of the Security Directorate, which was controlled by the Interior Ministry, were discovered to be involved in the 1985 murder of an American drug agent, that agency was abolished.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari opened his presidency in 1989 with two spectacular police operations, which brought the arrest of a top trafficker and a corrupt oil union leader. But the drug mafias nonetheless proliferated.

The narcotics corruption continued under President Ernesto Zedillo. Various anti-drug agencies working for the attorney general's office have been abolished or restructured, and corrupted again in a cycle repeated several times during his tenure.

If the governing party has had little success in fighting organized crime, Mr. Fox's National Action Party has done no better. Through much of the last decade, National Action governors controlled the states of Baja California and Chihuahua, and the narcotics violence only increased in both states, which are major staging areas for smugglers moving drugs across the border. Mr. Fox himself has little direct experience in combating organized crime because Guanajuato, the state he governed, lies outside the major drug corridors.

Mr. Fox's proposal for a new Department of Public Security would lodge Mexico's federal police in a new agency, independent of both the attorney general's office and the Interior Ministry. The aim is to create a well-paid, modern and apolitical police force.

The creation of a new agency to oversee the work of thousands of federal prosecutors would strip away the other half of the attorney general's duties. The new agency would seek to improve prosecutors' abilities to gather evidence. Currently, more emphasis is often placed on gathering intelligence on traffickers than on assembling court-worthy cases, aides to Mr. Fox said.

Mr. Fox's proposals will require the backing of large majorities in both houses of Congress in order to enact several constitutional amendments after he takes office Dec. 1.


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