A Defector In The Drug War

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY WAS ALL smiles as he received his Mexican counterpart--drug czar Gen. JesUs GutiErrez Rebollo--in Washington in late January. The U.S. drug czar had met the 42-year army veteran on a visit to Mexico and hailed him as ""a guy of absolute, unquestioned integrity.'' McCaffrey liked the idea of linking arms with another military man across the Rio Grande to fight drug traffic from Mexico--the country that is a conduit for nearly three fourths of America's cocaine. On GutiErrez's trip to Washington, he was treated to briefings everywhere from the White House to the DEA; back in Mexico City, it was even better. According to State Department officials, U.S. drug agents there gave GutiErrez information on America's paid informants and classified intelligence about Mexico's drug cartels.

McCaffrey--and the rest of the American anti-drug operation--is now regretting that early enthusiasm. In early February Mexican police discovered that GutiErrez's sumptuous Mexico City apartment was provided to the general by an alleged lieutenant of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, Mexico's most wanted drug lord. (Carrillo is known as the ""Lord of the Skies'' for his pioneering use of 727s to transport cocaine.) On Feb. 16, soldiers in black ski masks descended on GutiErrez's three other houses, turning up cash, a fleet of cars and encryption devices. Last week, just two months after GutiErrez took office, the Mexican general was arrested and accused of being on Carrillo's payroll.

The timing could not have been worse. GutiErrez's arrest came less than two weeks before the U.S. Congress was set to ""certify'' that Mexico was cooperating in the fight against narcotics, a designation that sends millions in U.S. anti-drug dollars to the Mexican government and, if revoked, means trade and investment sanctions. But perhaps more important, the episode illustrates a startling degree of disorganization and miscommunication at the highest levels of U.S. drug enforcement.

NEWSWEEK has learned that even as he was being briefed by U.S. officials, GutiErrez had been on a vast computerized DEA list called the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Database, or NADDIS. His NADDIS file said he had ""questionable relationships with drug people and that he was involved with [drug] cover-ups in the past,'' according to a high-level U.S. source. But no one passed that information along to the drug czar's office: in fact, McCaffrey received two classified reports giving GutiErrez a clean bill of health. Meanwhile no other agency, including the DEA, apparently acted on the intelligence. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, McCaffrey denied that he gave GutiErrez any classified information or knew about the briefings in Mexico City.

In Washington a high-level drug-assessment team is trying to figure out how much damage had been done. Clinton's aides were supposed to be busy planning his first state visit to Mexico in April. Instead, the Justice Department was frantically trying to determine whether what GutiErrez almost certainly reported back to Carrillo had endangered their agents and informants.

The irony of the GutiErrez scandal is that its origins may lie, at least partly, in McCaffrey's eagerness to use the local military to stem the flow of narcotics from Mexico. He had concluded that Mexico's narcotics police were hopelessly tainted. And while he didn't have complete faith in the Mexican military, he believed the country had little choice but to put its ""best'' military officers into the war against drugs. Last September, at their monthly breakfast meeting with McCaffrey, the bosses of America's key enforcement agencies, the FBI and DEA among them, warned him that Mexico was ""a society going over the edge.''

The general left the meeting and called Jose Angel Gurria, Mexico's foreign minister. They had a problem, McCaffrey said. Could you come to Washington? On Sept. 30, McCaffrey sat down with GurrIa and the Mexican ambassador, then silently handed him a paper headed ""Eyes Only/Police Sensitive.'' ""Here's our analysis of the situation,'' the general said. ""We have an emergency.'' The paper noted that Mexico hadn't detained one major drug suspect, there was no proper collection of evidence and that police operations were incompetent and the cartels were killing with impunity. That meeting was probably what led to GutiErrez's appointment.

Not everyone bought into the military strategy, however. McCaffrey had angered U.S. ambassadors to Latin America by pushing for military involvement in the drug fight back in 1995. They didn't agree with his view that the Mexican military was less susceptible to corruption because of its national pride. In the mid-1980s, the Mexican defense ministry tried to put together an elite anti-drug unit. Part of the requirement for the 45-man squad was passing a lie-detector test that included the question ""Did you ever receive payments from drug traffickers?'' So many military officers failed the test that the whole idea was scrapped.

Corruption makes things much tougher for U.S. drug-enforcement officials. In the past three months, death threats against U.S. agents have quadrupled. Carrillo himself escaped another arrest in January when police raided his sister Aurora's wedding in Sinaloa. He was tipped off; he never even showed up for the nuptials. Of the 25 people who were arrested, 16 were cops moonlighting as bodyguards. Now the government is wondering if it was GutiErrez who got the word to Carrillo.

For the United States, the issue is what to do now. ""We didn't get the job done,'' says one CIA official. ""Clearly,'' McCaffrey says, ""we need to examine our intelligence-assessment process.'' An enduring lesson of the GutiErrez affair may be that the drug war is hard enough without having to fight battles inside the bureaucracy, too.