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Wednesday, November 23, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mexico Fears Drug Cartels Like Colombia

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

PRESIDENT-ELECT Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon of Mexico and President Clinton are getting acquainted today at the White House. They are expected to discuss bilateral trade, California's Proposition 187 and drug trafficking. -----------------------------

MEXICO CITY - With evidence building that drug cartels have penetrated deep into Mexican government, law enforcement and society, authorities fear the narcotics trade might be on its way to turning the country into a Colombian-style "narco-democracy."

Six years after President Carlos Salinas de Gortari pledged to make life miserable for drug traffickers, the number of Mexican cartels has doubled, high-profile drug shootings have increased, and the amount of U.S.-bound cocaine has swelled.

Last Wednesday, the Mexican-Colombian connection burst into the open in Los Angeles, as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced agents had seized $500 million in Cali Cartel cocaine from Mexican smugglers, the largest undercover drug bust in U.S. history.

Although the influence of such Mexican drug runners is not yet near that of their Colombian partners, who run a virtual parallel government in the South American country, investigators say traffickers have infiltrated Mexico's police and courts deeply enough to strangle every effort to eradicate them. Because of this systemic corruption, they say, 70 percent of all cocaine bound for the United States now slips through Mexico, and increasing numbers of government officials may be on cartel payrolls.

`COLOMBIANIZATION'

"That `Colombianization' that Mexico feared has at least to a modest extent arrived," said Peter Reuter, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and co-author of a study commissioned by the Pentagon on the Mexican drug trade.

"Mexico has had its share of successes combating the problem, and compared to other Latin American countries, drug-dealing is risky business in Mexico," he said. "But with the level of traffic they are looking at, the level of influence may be at a point where it can't be controlled."

Mexican officials tout their efforts to thwart traffickers. More drugs have been seized since Salinas took office in 1989 than during any single previous administration, they point out. More than 102,000 people have been arrested for drug-related crimes since 1989, they said, and last year Salinas created the quasi-governmental National Institute for the Combat of Drugs.

Once resentful of U.S. involvement in the drug war, Mexican authorities say they have worked closely with the DEA since signing a bilateral accord in 1989. But the close relationship was not apparent in last week's cocaine bust in Los Angeles. Mexican agents were not involved in the six-month investigation and did not know of it until after it was made public.

MEXICANS ACCOMPLISH LITTLE

Mexico's efforts to fight drug trafficking have had little impact, undermined by chaos in the Mexican Federal Attorney General's office (which has had five top bosses in six years) and by widespread corruption, drug enforcement officials say. As a result, 98 percent of the estimated 500 tons of cocaine shipped through Mexico last year reached the streets of the United States.

In addition to the largest share of cocaine smuggled across the border, Mexico accounts for almost 25 percent of the heroin and 40 percent of the marijuana brought into the United States, according to the DEA.

Perhaps because of the increase in trafficking, drug use in Mexico has become a more visible problem. Domestic drug consumption has increased 80 percent during the past six years, with 1.6 million Mexicans saying they have used an illegal substance at least once, according to Mexican health officials. Yet compared with other countries, especially the United States, recreational drug use remains low.

MEXICAN CARTELS GET BIG SHARE

For their part in the movement of Colombian drugs through Mexico, the four Mexican cartels are rewarded handsomely: They take in 40 to 50 percent of the profits, DEA officials said. In 1993, that added up to about $30 billion in gross revenues - 2.6 times Mexico's gross revenues for petroleum exports and more than half the gross revenues for all other Mexican exports, the attorney general's office said.

Concerns about corruption were heightened by the Sept. 28 assassination of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, a top leader of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Investigators are trying to determine whether his slaying was financed or abetted by one of the Mexican cartels and planned by politicians working for the traffickers.

Fourteen people have been arrested in the killing, including a legislator, but no clear picture of the crime has emerged.

TRAFFICKERS ADAPT WELL

Mexican officials acknowledge privately that drug traffickers have adapted well to interdiction efforts, which may yet complicate the expanding economic partnership between Mexico and the United States.

U.S. officials who negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement say the growth of Mexico's drug gangs makes policymakers and investors nervous. Having heaped praise on Mexico for its cooperation on interdiction, Washington does not want to find itself wedded economically to a narco-democracy.

Like Salinas, President-elect Ernesto Zedillo, who takes office Dec. 1, has pledged to take on the violent drug traffickers and squelch corruption. So far, however, he has offered no specifics.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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