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General Gutierrez to Head Up Mexico's War Against Drugs

By Mark Fineman
Los Angeles Times
MEXICO CITY

The private jet appeared as a blip on military radar moments before it crash-landed in the mountains near Guadalajara in June 1995. But that radar speck started one of the most successful Mexican military operations in the war on powerful drug mafias that supply up to three-fourths of the cocaine sold in the United States.

Gen. Jose Gutierrez Rebollo, a member of Mexico's presidential guard and military commander in Guadalajara at the time, learned that among the plane's passengers was Hector Luis "El Guero" Palma, reputed leader of one of Mexico's largest drug cartels who had dozens of corrupt federal police officers on his payroll.

Within hours, federal agents working with the joint military-civilian operation traced the wounded Palma to an exclusive Guadalajara neighborhood, where heavily armed federal police officers were protecting him. Gutierrez quietly mobilized 200 soldiers to surround the house and local federal police headquarters and arrested Palma and 33 police officers without firing a shot.

The operation now stands out as a model of the Mexican military's new high profile in the government's war on drugs and police corruption. And the tough army general who commanded it now is in charge of the war itself.

Gutierrez, a career military officer who has been so low-profile and press-shy that a Mexican military spokesman here on Wednesday said he had never heard of the general, was named commissioner this week of Mexico's elite National Institute for Combating Drugs.

At 62, the enigmatic general, who is the first military officer to serve in a post historically reserved for well-connected politicians, now will be a key point man working with U.S. law-enforcement in the war on drugs.

It is a relationship that is scheduled to begin here next Tuesday when Gutierrez meets his U.S. counterpart, Clinton administration drug czar retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey. And when they meet, McCaffrey will find in the general a stark contrast to the educator and lawyer who preceded Gutierrez. Although the two career military officers have never met, McCaffrey told the Los Angeles Times in a telephone interview Wednesday that his new Mexican counterpart "has a public reputation of absolute integrity. He is a strong leader. This is clearly a focused, high-energy man.

"But the important thing is that the Mexicans are confident in him," McCaffrey said.

The U.S. drug czar also had high praise for Mexico's new attorney general, Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, saying he "has a reputation, both public and private, of rock-solid integrity." But McCaffrey added that he had "enormous admiration" for former Attorney General Antonio Lozano Gracia and his handpicked drug chief, Francisco Molina, who were dismissed Monday.

McCaffrey had built a close, working relationship with Lozano and Molina, an erudite professor and opposition politician. Initially, U.S. law-enforcement officials expressed concern that this week's dismissals could affect the close relationship they had forged, although McCaffrey brushed aside those concerns.

Last week, Molina told The Times that, during his eight months in the job, there had been "unprecedented cooperation" among Mexican and U.S. drug agencies. They formed joint task forces and shared sensitive intelligence after many years of mutual suspicion.

Despite that strong U.S. backing, though, Molina described Gutierrez's new job as increasingly difficult - and deadly. Against the backdrop of widespread corruption, he said the Mexican drug agency is outgunned and outfinanced by drug-smuggling gangs that earn an estimated $30 billion a year - equivalent to one-third of Mexico's entire federal budget.

Molina conceded he lost some of his agents to corruption and others to death. Molina said he was targeted himself earlier this year in a plot by the drug cartels.

Several of Molina's predecessors in Mexico's top counternarcotics posts initially were hailed as honest reformers by U.S. law enforcement only to be tarnished years later by allegations of corruption or incompetence.

In the brief aftermath of his firing, senior Mexican officials privately faulted Molina's performance. Official statistics released Tuesday showed that cocaine seizures by Molina's institute were down 50 percent between January and November of this year compared with the same period in 1995. Senior Mexican officials added that Molina's drug agents have failed to capture the nation's top accused drug lord, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, whose organization is based in Molina's home state, Chihuahua.

It was precisely to improve performance and to attack enduring police corruption that officials said Zedillo turned to a senior officer of the Mexican army - a disciplined force that remains largely untouched by corruption.

And the few senior Mexican officials and prominent journalists who know Gutierrez's background insist that McCaffrey will be pleasantly surprised when the two career military officers meet next week.

Gutierrez "is, in every way, a product of the military," said Jorge Zepeda Patterson, editor of Siglo 21, the most influential newspaper in Guadalajara, where the general has been military commander since 1989.