MICHAEL S. SERRILL
When Ricardo Cordero Ontiveros was forced to resign his job as head of an elite Mexican anti-narcotics squad last November, he departed his Tijuana office in a prudently unusual fashion. He secretly checked into a motel, and from there he called the local army headquarters. He then traveled to the airport under close military guard. "There were many people who wanted to kill me," he recalls. "I needed a military escort."
Regrettably, his prospective assassins were not the druglords Cordero had spent seven months chasing. Rather, he asserts, they were his own officers, angry at their erstwhile boss for trying to expose pervasive corruption in Mexico's war against drugs. Cordero says he has been in fear for his life ever since he challenged the crooks hiding behind badges of authority. Partly to protect himself, he has now gone public with tales of rogue police who routinely ignore, protect and escort drug shipments and in some cases are in the narcotics business themselves. "The Mexican antidrug effort is a fairy tale," Cordero said in an interview with TIME. "It's all a big show. Mexico is doing nothing in the war on drugs."
The main target of Cordero's corruption charges, the national antidrug office headed by Attorney General Antonio Lozano Garcia, denies the allegations and challenges its former agent to produce evidence. Cordero says he has plenty of proof, including stacks of documents hidden in a safe-deposit box.
Ricardo Cordero is an unlikely candidate for the role of whistle-blower. Owner of a San Luis Potosi signmaking factory whose business slowed after the December 1994 Mexican-peso crash, he used his connections in the National Action Party (P.A.N.), a conservative opposition group, to win himself a job in the agency headed by Lozano, a prominent member of the party. One of Lozano's mandates from President Ernesto Zedillo was to clean up Mexico's notoriously corrupt federal police force.
Though he had no police experience, in July 1995 Cordero was named head of the intelligence division in the Tijuana office of the Attorney General's National Institute to Combat Drugs (INCD). The main job of the 17-member task force was to break up the Tijuana-based cartel run by the Arellano Felix brothers, among Mexico's most dangerous narcotics traffickers. Instead of an elite force of tough cops, however, Cordero found a group of officers who by his account spent most of their time watching television and drinking beer. Their headquarters--whose rent was paid by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration--contained little equipment or furniture. Cordero says he ended up paying for supplies out of his own pocket.
Sloth and lack of resources were the least of Cordero's problems. What most shocked him was the level of covert collaboration between the drug dealers and the police assigned to arrest them. "It was one surprise after another," says Cordero. "You can't believe what goes on."
In one case, Cordero says, he was tipped off to a five-ton cache of cocaine that was passing through the town of San Luis Rio Colorado in the state of Sonora. When he and his men arrived to intercept the shipment, they found it guarded by a squad of local and federal judicial police. He informed his superiors, and was told to withdraw from the town.
In another instance, he learned of an operation in which police from the state of Michoacan were using commercial air flights to ship drugs to agents in Tijuana, who then presumably sent them north to the U.S. Last week President Clinton's drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, and U.S. law-enforcement officials backed up some of Cordero's charges, even as the Administration lauded Mexico's overall cooperation in the drug war.
Cordero said his superiors in Lozano's office ignored his reports on police corruption. Finally, after just seven months on the job, Cordero quit under pressure. The ex-crime fighter says he went public with his charges only after months of trying unsuccessfully to interest officials in Lozano's office and in the P.A.N. In response, Lozano transferred the investigation to the federal comptroller's office and at the same time issued a statement saying Cordero "is obligated to prove his statements not only to the press but also before the authorities."
Even as he endeavors to do so, Cordero finds himself in the dock. First came whispers by P.A.N. activists that Cordero's charges were part of a larger campaign to discredit the attorney general. Then there were leaks to the press accusing Cordero of taking money from drug dealers. Finally last Thursday, agents from Lozano's office arrested Cordero on bribery, narcotics-trafficking and other charges. The attorney general's office says it is carrying out a legitimate investigation. Cordero rejoins that his arrest is an effort to shut him up.
--Reported by Paul Sherman/Mexico City