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Mexican President Dismisses Incompetent Attorney General

By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
The Washington Post
MEXICO CITY

President Ernesto Zedillo fired his attorney general Monday because of what officials described as incompetence in the drug war and failure to solve Mexico's notorious assassination and corruption cases.

Antonio Lozano Gracia was appointed attorney general from the country's main opposition party two years ago amid high expectations that he could restore integrity to the Mexican judicial and law enforcement establishment, tarnished by corruption tied to drug smuggling and political chicanery. He won lavish praise from U.S. officials, who called him an honest man taking the attorney general's office in the right direction.

But Monday Zedillo aides had another assessment, explaining that Lozano was dismissed after virtually every major case he was charged with resolving has floundered. "It was a decision taken by the president because of the lack of results in most of the investigations and actions he had taken," said an official of the president's office, adding that Lozano also had created "overblown expectations."

The unresolved cases involve high-level assassinations and corruption that have shaken the government and the economy over the last two years, including the death of the ruling party's presidential candidate in 1994 and revelations of rampant corruption in the administration of past president Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Zedillo was particularly disappointed with Lozano's failures in combating narcotics trafficking, which the president has described as the country's greatest national security concern, according to an official. Lozano "didn't do much of anything," the official said. "We were very disappointed on the drug front. The army has been fighting the drug war."

Zedillo also decapitated the law enforcement agency's drug-fighting force, dismissing most of Lozano's top advisers, including the chief of the Institute to Combat Drugs, Mexico's equivalent of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

There was no indication from Mexican officials that Lozano, 43, was involved in anything dishonest. "There is absolutely nothing against him regarding corruption," an official said. Lozano was unavailable for comment.

The dismissal was another setback for Zedillo as he begins the third year of his six-year term. He had appointed Lozano in hopes that a member of the opposition National Action Party would bring an atmosphere of impartiality to one of the country's most corrupt and politically protective agencies, the attorney general's office.

Zedillo had been under increasing pressure to fire Lozano in recent weeks amid criticism for his failure to resolve the nation's most pressing criminal cases or to control the rise of narco-traffickers.

Yet in a poll of Mexican journalists, academics and analysts published by the newspaper Reforma, Lozano ranked fourth among 23 senior government officials in terms of his ability to do his job. Zedillo ranked eighth.

While Lozano had fired hundreds of his own officers for corruption in the last two years, he has recently been embarrassed by allegations of corruption among new appointees.

U.S. officials long have been frustrated by the revolving door at the attorney general's office - there were five attorneys general during the tenure of Salinas. Against that background, they had praised Zedillo and Lozano for stability in the law enforcement agency.

Some U.S. officials expressed concern that Lozano's dismissal could harm cooperation between the two countries in the drug war. Lozano and other Mexican officials were scheduled to meet here with U.S. drug enforcement authorities next week to discuss the drug war. It was unclear whether the meetings would go on.

At the time of Lozano's appointment, many Mexicans believed that members of the ruling party were behind the murder of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio during the 1994 campaign.

Lozano's failure to solve the Colosio case - as well as his faltering investigations into corruption allegations involving Raul Salinas, brother of the former president, and some of the nation's best-known business leaders - have prompted questions as to whether Lozano was competent to handle the cases.

Zedillo reportedly was angry with Lozano for claiming that a body found buried on a ranch owned by Raul Salinas was that of an accomplice who allegedly carried out another unsolved murder, that of ruling party official Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

It now appears the corpse is not that of the alleged accomplice, according to officials in Zedillo's office.