September 16, 1998

Elite Mexican Drug Officers Said to Be Tied to Traffickers

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    WASHINGTON -- An ambitious effort to overhaul Mexico's corrupt law-enforcement system has been thrown into turmoil by the disclosure that top investigators of an elite American-trained police unit may have ties to drug traffickers, American officials say.

    The disclosure emerged after recent lie-detector tests administered, at Mexican authorities' request, to Mexican police agents by American Government experts.

    Officials said at least some of those investigators whose tests indicated collusion with traffickers had been chosen for their posts after elaborate screening devised by Americans.

    American officials said they were just beginning to assess the damage that corrupt investigators might have wrought, a task that will take weeks. Most senior officials in the unit were implicated by the lie-detector tests.

    Officials said they feared that much of the sensitive information that American law-enforcement agents had shared with the Mexican unit during the last year might have been compromised.

    "You have to assume that everything we've been giving them has ended up in the hands of the traffickers," said a senior United States law-enforcement official who, as did others, insisted on anonymity.

    "It's a disaster."

    Other officials were more cautious about the significance of the tests. But they said they expected that American collaboration with the unit to be suspended until the Mexican Attorney General's office undertook an investigation of the case.

    A senior Mexican law-enforcement official said tonight that the accusations were serious, but did not necessarily mean that senior investigators had been working for traffickers. He said, though, that an administrative inquiry was under way and that one senior investigator had been reassigned.

    "This vetting process was not the one we agreed to; the questions were not clear and they were not the ones we authorized," the official, who insisted on anonymity, said of the American conclusions.

    "Failing a polygraph does not mean that these people committed crimes or took money, and there may be a lot of reasons why they did not tell the truth," he said, in a telephone interview from Mexico City. "But the law is very clear. To work in this unit you have to pass the polygraph."

    The possible penetration of the unit, apparently by powerful drug gangs, is the latest in a series of such calamities.

    Last week The Washington Post reported that Mexican officials were investigating allegations of corruption against dozens of army soldiers who had been stationed at the Mexico City airport as part of the armed forces' American-supported involvement in the fight against drugs.

    For 10 years, as successive Administrations in Washington have sought to work more closely with the Mexican authorities, both to fight the flow of illegal drugs to the United States and to strengthen the rule of law in a strategically vital neighbor, American officials have publicly embraced senior Mexican prosecutors, police commanders and other officials who have later been revealed, one after another, to have taken bribes from major drug smugglers.

    In the most serious case, the Mexican Government announced early last year that its drug-enforcement chief was in fact working secretly with the man then considered the biggest cocaine trafficker in the country, Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Days earlier the official, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, had been basking in the praise of the Clinton Administration's drug-policy director, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey.

    General McCaffrey and other Administration officials vowed that such a debacle would not occur again. They pressed for a sweeping reorganization of how the United States gathers and disseminates intelligence about trafficking. The reorganization plans have run into wide opposition among Mexican law-enforcement officials.

    But more important for Mexico, American law-enforcement officials also provided extensive help in writing a new law against organized crime, in setting up an investigative unit to enforce the law and in screening hundreds of other police agents assigned to drug enforcement.

    Prospective members of the Organized Crime Unit were submitted to extensive background and financial checks, lie-detector tests and psychological evaluations. Most of those chosen also received training from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration or both.

    But after a year and a half, in which the team of more than 200 investigators, prosecutors and intelligence analysts has been responsible for investigating many of the most important drug-trafficking and kidnapping cases, its record is mixed.

    Mexican and American officials praise the unit for what they say was its role in the arrests of a handful of important smugglers and the dismantling of a kidnapping ring that terrorized central Mexico while receiving protection from state officials.

    In particular Dr.

    Samuel González Ruiz, 37, a former law professor who heads the unit, has won wide respect from American officials for what they say is honesty and courage. Dr. González Ruiz was one of three top unit officials who were said to have passed the lie-detector tests.

    Increasingly, though, American officials have grown critical of the unit for the same basic failing of the special forces that came before it. Despite issuing dozens of arrest warrants, the squad has been unable to capture leaders of the biggest trafficking gangs, despite having access to some of the most sensitive intelligence that Washington has ever given the Mexican Government.

    As part of the law on organized crime that went into effect in November 1996, the unit has pioneered the use of protected witnesses and plea bargaining in criminal cases. Among other actions, Dr. González Ruiz arranged this year for testimony before a Federal grand jury in Houston by a former Mexican federal police chief who agreed to cooperate with authorities in return for a reduced prison sentence on corruption charges.

    But the unit's handling of its witnesses has sometimes left a lot to be desired. A highly valued informer who implicated senior military officials in drug corruption, Tomás Colsa McGregor, was murdered last year after having left the custody of the unit, American officials said.

    Another informer, a former federal highway police officer, Jaime José Olvera, was kidnapped from a street in Mexico City on Thursday, after having been in the protective custody of the unit. He was found dead on Friday.

    American officials said Officer Olvera had provided crucial information about the most important drug gang, which he had once worked for, providing security.

    Three officials said the lie-detector tests were partly a response to informers. But other experts said Americans screened agents in countries like Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Thailand.

    According to two officials, the testing, led by the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration, focused in part on whether senior investigators had passed information to drug traffickers.

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