How Clean Is Mexico's Operation Clean-Up?

How Clean Is Mexico’s Operation Clean-Up?

Frontera NorteSur, News Report, Ricardo Ravelo, Posted: Jan 13, 2009

When Mexican President Felipe Calderon and U.S. President-elect Barack Obama met Jan. 12, one of the topics high on the agenda was Mexico´s drug war — and President Calderon’s Operation Clean-Up, the Mexican government’s declared campaign to cleanse federal law enforcement of corruption by organized crime.

The latest name to be associated with the probe is that of the late Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who served as head of the federal attorney general´s elite anti-organized crime squad, SIEDO, during the Fox administration. By most accounts, Santiago Vasconcelos was also the Bush administration´s man in Mexico. From the vantage point of the Potomac, he was viewed as an uncorruptable ally in a common war against drugs and vice.

But according to an account published in the Mexican press, Santiago Vasconcelos presided over a $35 million payment to SIEDO from the Beltran Leyva drug cartel in 2006 and 2007. The accusation was made in a legal declaration to the Office of the Federal Attorney General (PGR) by a protected witness called “Emiliano.”

Of course, Santiago Vasconcelos cannot defend himself from the serious accusation in the Mexican press; he was killed in a strange plane accident last November 4, US election day, along with Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mourino, President Calderon´s right-hand man.

If Emiliano´s statement is true, it could greatly help explain the lack of progress in clearing up many of the Ciudad Juarez femicides in addition to the forced disappearances of numerous men in the same city.

When Santiago Vasconcelos was at the helm, SIEDO in charge of investigating the fates of nearly 200 men, including dozens of U.S. citizens, whose disappearances in Ciudad Juarez were suspected of being
engineered by drug traffickers. SIEDO, which was portrayed early on as Mexico´s version of “The Untouchables,” was once put in charge of investigating about a dozen of the Ciudad Juarez women´s murders, including the emblematic 2001 cotton field case.

A SIEDO case against three men for the cotton field crimes later fell apart amid unproven stories of human organ traffickers harvesting the body parts of young women. Not a single femicide or forced disappearance investigated by SIEDO in Ciudad Juarez was ever solved.

If Emiliano´s accusation is untrue, it would add more confusion to the scandal swirling around Operation Clean-Up, which so far has resulted in the detention of 10 former officials from the PGR, Mexican army and Interpol. Additionally, 35 SIEDO investigators have been sacked from their jobs since last summer.

The legal cases rely heavily on the statements of at least a half-dozen protected witnesses, whose credibilities are questioned by some.

For example, Miguel Colorado, the former tecnical coordinator for SIEDO, who is now sitting in the maximum security Puente Grande prison accused of protecting Sinaloa drug traffickers. Known as the “Old Man of the Heavens” because of his reported Bible-reading affinities, Colorado is facing extradition to the United States.

Unlike other alleged traffickers, however, Colorado is looking forward to his day in U.S. court, according to the accused man´s son, Miguel Colorado Luke. Calling the charges against his father baseless, Colorado Luke told Proceso magazine that his family had faith in the US justice system.

“Given this reality the family has decided to face trial in the US, where we are going to win,” Colorado Luke said. “Later we will file a counter-suit against the PGR, which will be exposed internationally as an institution that, with dirty methods, plans to move forward with its Operation Clean-Up.”

For both Mexico City and Washington, the stakes are high in regards to the outcome of Operation Clean-Up. Successful prosecutions of Colorado and other officials would bolster the current drug war strategy of the Calderon administration, which is the recipient of increased U.S. military and security assistance under the Merida Initiative, a program unlikely to immediately change under the incoming Obama administration.

On the slip side of the coin, the failure of Operation Clean-Up could cast more doubt on the viability of a binational drug war that now counts decades and tens of thousands dead on both sides of the border.

Additional sources: Agencia Reforma, January 10, 2009. Proceso, January 4, 2009. Article by Ricardo Ravelo.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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