Mexico's Self-Defeating Drug-War Zeal

Last May, feeling the need to show how seriously they took the drug war—and to demonstrate some results—Mexican federal troops arrested nearly 30 public officials suspected of ties to drug trafficking in President Felipe Calderón's home state of Michoacán, known for its mountains and clandestine marijuana fields. The haul included 10 mayors, pulled from their houses and offices at gunpoint by masked soldiers. Interior Secretary Fernando Gómez Mont touted the operation as "necessary to save politics and to defend our institutions and our very own political organizations from the pressures and temptations of crime." Invoking a 2008 law that dramatically expanded federal police powers, authorities held the mayors without charges, citing the mere suspicion of links to organized crime. The government was showcasing its zero-tolerance policy in the drug war that had killed more than 11,000 people and cost more than $3 billion per year.

Nine months later, the would-be champions of justice should feel awfully sheepish. Three of the mayors were released after a month in prison, returning home to cities divided by distrust. Then, in January, after nearly 250 days in jail, four more of the mayors were released, along with eight other officials. After their high-profile arrests, the mayors' quiet release has left many Mexicans wondering what is going on. The "Michoacanazo", as the debacle is now known, paints a picture of a bumbling, strong-arming federal government content to ruin careers, deprive cities of their elected leaders, and throw people in jail before building cases against them in the name of good press. It reveals that Calderón's government in Mexico City has become so paranoid and defensive in its conduct of the drug war that nearly everyone—including officialdom—merits suspicion. The fervor of the arrests, and the fact that most mayors are now free and back in office, suggests that the federal government is starting to lose sight of who, exactly, the enemy is.

Before being elected mayor of Uruapan—a city in the state of Michoacán where the brutal La Familia cartel once threw five severed heads onto a crowded dance floor—Antonio González was a Xerox executive and founder of the local credit union. He's also a member of Calderón's own party. But his clean-cut reputation didn't keep him from getting thrown in jail. "Your party has already forgotten about you," he was told while being interrogated. "They've forgotten you exist. You are going to spend 15 years here." Like the other mayors, he was accused of accepting money from cartels in exchange for influence, a charge he also denies. Federal prosecutors have not released information on any of the cases, but González and his attorney say the only official charge against him was that he ate lunch with someone connected to a cartel. "I've eaten with a lot of people. My job requires it," González said. "But I never went to eat with [a narco]. That's not true."

González was released with the other mayors in January, and he has yet to hear an apology, either from the federal government or his party. Gómez Mont, the interior secretary, not only refused to apologize to the officials, but he even insisted they were released because of a lack of evidence against them—not because they were innocent—and that they could still be rearrested. (State legislators nonetheless voted quickly to allow González and the others to return to office.) Yet unlike the 48 percent of Mexicans who now disapprove of the president, he hasn't lost faith in Calderón himself. "I'm sure that someone lied to the president. Someone wanted to ingratiate himself and misled the president in order to justify their job or their position. That's the only thing I can think of that might have happened."

Some of the other arrests seem even more craven because of their openly political flavor. The 10 mayors were jailed a month before the July 5 midterm elections last year—which Calderón's conservative National Action Party lost badly. All but González were members of political parties opposed to Calderón. "The officials acted in really bad faith by arresting us like they did when they could have just sent someone to talk to us," said José Cortés Ramos, mayor of Áquila, who was accused of accepting campaign funds from narcos in return for police protection. "Either the government is deceiving itself, or we have a very poorly thought-through public policy at work here."

Admittedly, it's still a (very) remote possibility that the mayors are guilty after all, but the government is powerless to convict them—a frightening thought in a country already weakened and besieged. And at any rate, corruption is a very real danger in Mexico, especially for city-level police and politicians exposed to La Familia's cartel. Even the brother of the current Michoacán governor is a wanted man. Federal prosecutors point out, furthermore, that 20 former Michoacán officials—including three mayors and 10 others detained during the Michoacanazo—remain in jail under charges of ties to organized crime, although none has been convicted.

But the Michoacanazo shows the lengths to which the Calderón administration will go to to create the impression of progress in the fight against drug traffickers. At worst, it reveals a government so desperate and confused that it has begun to devour itself: burning innocent public servants in the cauldron of an all-consuming campaign, undermining democracy and the rule of law with shock-and-awe shows of executive force. That's no way to fight a war.

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