MEXICO CITY, Oct. 21 - Mexican officials said today that they had arrested 25 people who infiltrated the army, the federal police and the attorney general's office on behalf of some of the nation's most powerful drug kingpins.

The arrests were the first case of its kind under President Vicente Fox. They suggest that despite the recent jailing of leading figures from all the nation's major drug gangs, the cartels retain the money and the power to corrupt Mexico's government.

The attorney general, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, said "corrupt public servants" were at the heart of a network that had been stealing secrets from the government and selling them to the cartels since 1996.

"These unscrupulous people infiltrated and betrayed the government, and of course the citizenry, by sabotaging operations against drug trafficking," he said.

He said the ring included retired soldiers and law enforcement officers, as well as five midlevel officials in the attorney general's office, the Defense Ministry and the federal police. Each member was paid thousands of dollars a month, he said, and about $2.3 million in drug money used for bribes was seized in the investigation.

Under Mr. Fox's predecessors, American law enforcement officials assumed that drug gangs had corrupted law enforcement operations in Mexico at the highest levels. Those fears were underscored in 1997, when the newly appointed drug czar, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested and convicted as the henchman of a leading cocaine kingpin.

The Fox government created a highly regarded central law enforcement command, which was apparently untouched by the ring. But the ring maintained an intelligence network inside the government.

The leader of the ring appears to have been a state police official named Francisco Tornez Castro, Mr. Macedo de la Concha said. He had previously worked for the federal judicial police, a notoriously corrupt institution disbanded by the Fox government. Investigators found that Mr. Tornez Castro operated a safe house in Mexico City that was the headquarters of the ring.

The ring worked mainly for four of Mexico's most wanted drug lords, prosecutors said, and the ring's existence may explain the four men's continuing ability to evade arrest.

One is Osiel Cardenas Guillen, the head of a major drug organization known as the Gulf Cartel, which operates out of Mexico's northeast. He is accused of shipping Colombian cocaine from Mexico's Gulf coast to the United States since 1997.

Another is Ismael Zambada, who is vying to control cocaine trafficking in Mexico's northwest. The third is Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, who took over his brother Amado's drug operations when Amado died after botched plastic surgery.

The fourth is Joaquin Guzman, who was serving 20 years for cocaine trafficking in a maximum security prison when, on Jan. 19, 2001, someone opened his cell, knocked out the video surveillance cameras, hid him in a burlap bag, put the bag in a laundry truck and drove him away.

Upon Mr. Guzman's escape, President Fox said "the pervasive influence of dirty money" had infected "law enforcement organizations and dishonest government bureaucrats" throughout Mexico.

"The corruption of the past can't be ended overnight," he said, "but now we are truly trying to eradicate it."

Pubdate: Tue, 22 Oct 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company