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U.S.: Mexican Military Rife with Drug Corruption

Saturday, 24 December 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials and analysts say there are new signs that drug corruption is spreading within the Mexican military, an institution long regarded as more professional and less prone to criminality than the country's law enforcement agencies.

In interviews, four senior U.S. officials, a senior Mexican intelligence official and three independent analysts all expressed concern about the expanding role of the Mexican military in the drug war. Some pointed to low pay among the middle and lower ranks as making military personnel vulnerable to offers from cartel leaders who may double or triple their pay.

"Corruption is more serious in the Mexican military than just about any other Latin American military," said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The reason is not that the Mexicans are any more venal; it's that we're talking about huge amounts of money because drugs flow into Mexico and that makes them more vulnerable."

Spokesmen for the Mexican Embassy in Washington and for Los Pinos, the presidential residence, declined to comment, referring questions to the military. Military officials requested questions in writing but said there would be no reply for now.

The concerns were underscored in a video sent to The Dallas Morning News in October and described in a Dec. 1 article. The video shows four men, bound and bloodied and prodded by an unseen interrogator, talking about their work for a drug cartel. Two of the four identified themselves as former military men and said that their job was to recruit for the cartel from Mexico's special forces.

The emergence of two new paramilitary groups, Los Negros and Los Numeros, which may seek to bolster their forces with military personnel and federal agents, has added to the concern, U.S. officials said. The groups are said to work for the Sinaloa cartel, purportedly headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. They were recruited to battle the rival Gulf cartel and its enforcement arm, the Zetas, and to spread the Sinaloa cartel's dominance along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, the officials said.

The Mexican government's central role in fighting drug trafficking is a relatively recent development. In 1996, during the administration of President Ernesto Zedillo, the U.S. government encouraged the Mexican government to give the military a central role in anti-narcotics efforts - in part because the military was viewed as uncorrupted, analysts said.

"We're the ones who pushed the Mexican military into fighting narcotics," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, head of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "We've pushed them into narco corruption."

The military - historically a rallying point of Mexican nationalism - was long viewed as relatively free of the kind of corruption that has engulfed the country and many of its institutions. For example, this month the Mexico attorney general's office said that 1,493 federal agents - about one of every five members of an elite force of 7,000 working for an agency modeled after the FBI - were under criminal investigation.

In the past five years, President Vicente Fox has dramatically increased the military's participation in anti-narcotics efforts by including military personnel on the attorney general's payroll.

"I think it's very dangerous to move military officers into what should be civilian jobs," said another senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's very risky, not only to the mission they're supposed to perform, but to the institution from where they come."

Since 1996, the U.S. government has spent at least $225 million in training and other military assistance for anti-drug aid programs, according to a report by the Washington Office of Latin America, or WOLA, a nongovernmental organization that monitors military cooperation between Mexico and the United States.

The policy of giving the military a central role has "allowed drug traffickers to penetrate deep into the military structure," without markedly slowing the flow of drugs to the United States, the report said.

"Transparency is essential to combating corruption, but the Mexican military has managed to avoid external oversight," said Joy Olson, executive director of WOLA. "It should come as no surprise that the military's secrecy is one factor that has made it more vulnerable to the corrupting influence of the drug trade."

U.S officials and analysts stressed that low pay among the rank and file makes them especially vulnerable to drug traffickers. Soldiers make about $300 a month, compared with $5,000 for lieutenant colonels and about $28,000 for the defense secretary, according to a salary scale on the military's Web site.

Raul Benitez Manaut, a military expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said that for the most part high-ranking military officials make enough money to resist the lure of working for criminal organizations.

"The top brass has a lot to lose, although that doesn't mean that we haven't had a few cases of corruption," he said. "However, it's the mid-level and bottom ranks that have more to gain than to lose. Temptations there run deep."

Benitez pointed to several prominent military members alleged to have provided protection to drug kingpins in exchange for money and other bribes. They include army Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, a career officer who was director of the National Institute to Combat Drugs when he was arrested in 1997 and jailed on charges of protecting members of the Juarez cartel.

Another senior U.S. official, considered an expert on the Mexican military, said: "I don't think at high levels there is rampant corruption, but given how low the pay among the unit level and how pay is often late or delayed, frustration is clearly indicated by the high desertion rate. ... So there is certainly corruption that happens that can't be controlled by headquarters. I don't think headquarters condones it, but they certainly don't do enough to address it. Then again, I can't think of a realistic way they could."

In 2001, Mexican newspapers received a letter, apparently from a deserter, saying: "I was loyal and risked my life an infinite number of times in situations that I now understand were not worth it. I later understood that you cannot live off of loyalty. While our commanders eat steak, we, with the sweat on our foreheads, were only capable of eating beans." The letter was signed, "Zetas 10 2001," an apparent reference to the paramilitary group.

Fresh concerns about the military's role in the drug war surfaced this month with reports about the video showing the four bloodied men, who described carrying out abductions and killings for the Gulf cartel.

In the video, two of the four men said that their job involved recruiting soldiers and members of the GAFES, elite special air forces - Mexico's version of the Green Berets. Several members of the GAFES, some trained by U.S. military personnel at Fort Bragg, N.C., deserted and formed the Zetas, the enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel, according to the attorney general's office. A U.S. law enforcement official and a senior Mexican intelligence official in Mexico City, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said that members of the Mexican military appeared to have played a role in the interrogation of the four men in the video - a conclusion based on the way the men were handcuffed.

Two of the four, who identified themselves as civilians, had their hands bound behind their backs. Two who said they had been in the military had their hands bound in front of them. That would be a standard courtesy that military officers would extend to fellow soldiers, the intelligence official said.

In the video, the men are seated on the floor in front of black plastic garbage bags at an undisclosed location. At the end of the video, one of the men who identified himself as having been in the military is shot in the head with a gun held by a person off camera.

Reports about the video, which received wide media coverage in Mexico, were reverberating within the military, Benitez said.

"Many are asking questions, questioning their own colleagues, their commitment, and their overall mission of taking on drug traffickers."

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WASHINGTON -- U.S. officials and analysts say there are new signs that drug corruption is spreading within the Mexican military, an institution long regarded as more professional and less prone to criminality than the country's law enforcement agencies. In interviews,...
Saturday, 24 December 2005 12:00 AM
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