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Dallas Morning News

Big sweeps have yielded few benefits
Long-term effect on drug trade has been virtually nil, experts say

U.S.-MEXICO BORDER – Since the 1970s, Mexican authorities have periodically launched splashy anti-drug operations like the one now being carried out in Nuevo Laredo and 13 other cities. But these high-profile raids – often involving hundreds of federal agents and soldiers – have had virtually no long-term impact, drug-trade specialists say.

"The whole history of anti-drug sweeps in Mexico is that eventually the sweepers get converted," said Charles Bowden, author of Down by the River and other acclaimed books about the drug business. "They join the traffickers. Nothing changes except there are more drugs – and they're cheaper."

Mexico's anti-drug operations usually produce short-term results. Gang members and mafia soldiers are jailed. Drugs are seized. And homes, businesses and shiny cars owned by the traffickers are confiscated. But experts say the government's efforts – such as the show of force on Sunday and Monday following the assassination last week of Nuevo Laredo's new police chief – barely make a dent in what's become a multibillion-dollar industry.

Don Henry Ford, author of Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy, said Mexico's drug economy has multiplied since the 1980s, when he smuggled marijuana. "The money is just too big now," he said. "There's no way the government's going to stop it. And they can't afford to. If all that money were to dry up, it would literally cause a wave of people trying to get out of there. It would break the nation."

Complicating matters: Many of those in law enforcement are corrupt, he said. After the Mexican army raided his marijuana plantation in the 1980s, he said, soldiers forced the field workers to finish packaging the drugs so they'd have an easier time reselling it later.

Soldiers did destroy some of his marijuana, burning "some of the inferior parts of the plants," he said. "But if you get real serious about stopping trafficking, you quickly get dead."

Political analyst Ana Maria Salazar said launching Operation Safe Mexico made sense for President Vicente Fox and his National Action Party, or PAN, because the government needed to demonstrate it was active and decisive on one of the country's biggest issues, especially in a political season.
"There was a need," she said. "There have been several comments by the president and his advisers that everything was under control – despite these spectacular executions [by drug traffickers].

"They had to come out and start reacting, not only to show the public that they are in charge, but also to retake some areas of the country where they had lost control."

Phil Jordan, the former director of the El Paso Intelligence Center, jointly run by the DEA and other federal agencies, applauded the Mexican crackdown and urged the Mexican government to continue pursuing the drug lords.

"The traffickers basically have a stranglehold on Mexico," he said, "and a rapid response like this one is necessary." Mr. Jordan said "pre-emptive strikes" against the traffickers are fully justified. "There's enough intelligence on both sides of the river to give the authorities probable cause to do pre-emptive strikes against the godfathers of the drug trade," he said.

"This is something that can be successful as long as President Vicente Fox is in office. He knows Mexico has a problem. And whether we like it or not, it's our problem, too, because the violence is spreading across the border."

1975-85 crackdown: One of the first high-profile drug sweeps in Mexico was Operation Condor, which lasted from 1975 to 1985. Some 10,000 soldiers under the command of Mexican Gen. José Hernández Toledo were sent to Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua states to destroy the drug crops there. Gen. Hernández "predicted the end of drug trafficking in six months," Mexican sociologist Luis Astorga said. But he failed. Peasants terrified of the soldiers fled to other states along with many of the traffickers.

The drug trade spread. Prices in the U.S. went up temporarily, but the flow of marijuana and other drugs into Texas and other states continued unabated. Carlos Aguilar Garza, the attorney general's front man during Operation Condor, "became a drug trafficker himself years later and was assassinated in 1993," Mr. Astorga said.

"Hundreds of people were arrested, tortured and sent to jail" during Operation Condor, "but not a single big boss" was among them, Mr. Astorga said. And by the time it was over, most of the drug lords moved to Guadalajara and "continued their business on a bigger scale." Hoping to get trafficking under control, the Mexican government named a general to head the top anti-drug agency.
Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo carried out a crackdown of his own until he was arrested in February 1997 and charged with protecting the late Amado Carrillo Fuentes, then the country's top trafficker.

NAFTA's impact: Since then, things have only gotten worse, drug-trade experts say. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, has driven many legitimate Mexican farmers out of business, and many have turned to drug cultivation, Mr. Bowden said. "It's one of the unintended consequences of NAFTA," Mr. Bowden said.

Traffickers have also gotten more sophisticated. A group of specially trained soldiers known as the Zetas are working as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, which controls trafficking along most of the Texas-Mexico border. "They're very well-organized," said Celerino "Cele" Castillo, a former 12-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and author of the book Powderburns: Cocaine, Contras and the Drug War. "All their kilos of coke are bar-coded, just like the UPS," he said.
The Zetas are also brutally efficient, Mr. Bowden said.

"The Zetas don't waste bullets," he said. "There's a certain elegance to what they do." Despite key arrests, experts say making meaningful progress remains an uphill battle because illicit drugs have become such an important part of the Mexican economy. Said Mr. Castillo: "We are more addicted to drug money than we are to drugs."
- Tracey Eaton, June 13, 2005 

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