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MEXICO: 700 Federal Police Agents Fired, Seven Senior Anti-Drug Officials Murdered


November 1996

On August 16, Mexican Attorney General Antonio Lozano fired 737 members of his 4,400- member Federal Judicial Police after an internal investigation into corruption in the agency. At a press conference, Lozano said he fired the officers because they did not have "the ethical profile" for the job. Having previously fired 513 officers shortly after he took office 20 months ago, Lozano has now purged 28% of his force (Molly Moore, "Mexico's Attorney General Fires 17% of Federal Police," Washington Post, August 17, 1996, p. A21).

One month after the firings and following a rash of murders of anti-drug officials, policemen and low-level drug traffickers, Ernesto Ibarra Santes was assassinated on September 14. Ibarra, the senior commander of the Federal Judicial Police for the Mexican border state of Baja California, was murdered 28 days after he took office. As he was riding in a taxi to the headquarters of Mexico's national anti-drug institute, two cars carrying gunmen with AK-47s intercepted the taxi and sprayed the vehicle with bullets, killing Ibarra, two federal policemen and the taxi driver ("3 drug agents slain in airport ambush," Chicago Tribune, September 15, 1996, s. 1, p. 6; Julia Preston, "Drug Official Shot to Death In Mexico City," New York Times, September 16, 1996, p. A9).

U.S. officials and Mexican Attorney General Lozano have suggested that members of the "Tijuana Cartel," Mexico's most notorious drug trafficking organization, murdered Ibarra in retaliation. The Tijuana cartel is headed by the Arellano Felix brothers -- Benjamin, Javier and Ramon. Ibarra had labeled Tijuana as the cartel's "sanctuary," contradicting federal officials senior to him, and promised to put more pressure on the Tijuana cartel and corrupt police. In an interview for the Los Angeles Times two days before he was gunned down, Ibarra told a reporter, "Police had become so corrupted that they weren't just friends of the traffickers, they were their servants."

Ibarra's death was accompanied by a report that $50,000 in American currency was found in one of his suitcases in the trunk of the taxi. Lozano speculated that the assassins planted the cash to incriminate Ibarra, an assertion that U.S. law enforcement officials reportedly agree with.

On September 22, one week after Ibarra's murder, Jorge Garcia Vargas, director of the Tijuana offices of the Institute for the Combat of Drugs, and three of his aides were found murdered. "It appears that before they killed them, they tortured them," spokesman Ricardo Zamora said. Garcia Vargas, 43, is the seventh senior federal law enforcement official murdered this year who had dealt with narcotics cases in Baja California. The four men's bodies were found in a truck in the middle-class Mexico City suburb of Cuajimalpa. (Anne-Marie O'Connor and Mark Fineman, "Anti-Drug Chief, 3 Aides Found Slain in Mexico," Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1996, p. A1; "Another drug cop is found murdered," Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1996, s. 1, p. 8).

Some officials suggest that the seven victims may have been corrupt allies of the drug traffickers. Jose Luis Perez Canchola, the Tijuana-based vice president of the Mexican Human Rights Academy, blames corrupt policemen for the killings. Perez notes that Mexican authorities have failed to solve any of the seven murders and that Ibarra's assassins appeared to have known the details of Ibarra's highly confidential travel itinerary. Other officials submit that the assassinations may have been carried out by policemen in response to the mass firings, or by conspirators trying to coverup the March 1994 assassination of presidential heir apparent Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana, a murder that several of the slain officials were investigating (Molly Moore, "Tijuana Police Deaths: Drugs or Politics," Washington Post, September 17, 1996, p. A9).

U.S. officials expressed concern over the violence in Tijuana, comparing it to Colombia's drug-related violence during the 1980s when traffickers targeted many civil authorities who opposed them. One senior U.S. official said that U.S. law enforcement officials would be willing to assist Mexican authorities "in any way." He added, "Unlike Colombia, the Mexicans have the ability to carry the violence across the border." The killings have also raised concerns over the security of U.S. drug agents in Mexico. Seventy percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States is shipped through Mexico (Anne-Marie O'Connor, "U.S. Fears Escalation of Mexico's Drug Violence," Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1996, p. A3; Sam Dillon, "Mexico Drug Wars Advance Within Sight of U.S. Border," New York Times, October 10, 1996, p. A1).

In response to the criticism, Mexican authorities announced on October 1 the replacement of the top Baja California federal prosecutor, Luis Antonio Ibanez Cornejo. On October 2, Mexican authorities announced the arrests for the assassination of Ernesto Ibarra Santes of four alleged members of the Tijuana cartel, including two who had fled to San Diego. (Anne-Marie O'Connor, "Pace of Investigations in Baja Slayings Decried," Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1996, p. A16; Mary Beth Sheridan and Anne-Marie O'Connor, "Baja Drug Prosecutor Replaced Amid Killings," Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1996, p. A3; Mary Beth Sheridan and Anne-Marie O'Connor, "4 Held in Killing of Anti-Drug Officer in Mexico," Los Angeles Times, October 3, 1996, p. A1).