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Mexico Names New Drug Czar Following Thorough Screening

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Los Angeles Times

Scrambling to restore credibility to Mexico's scandal-plagued fight against narcotics, authorities Monday named a top local prosecutor as this country's new drug czar - but only after subjecting him to unprecedented scrutiny, including a polygraph and a drug test.

The prosecutor, Mariano Herran Salvatti, replaces a military general who recently was arrested in one of the nation's worst drug scandals. The new chief practically has no experience in drug cases, though Mexican officials apparently considered that a guarantee of his honesty.

In a sweeping effort to weed out corruption, authorities also announced that all employees of the Mexican drug agency would undergo rigorous exams of everything from their finances to their urine.

"This requirement is and will be unavoidable," Attorney General Jorge Madrazo declared in a news conference.

The new drug czar was named amid an uproar in the United States over the apparent spread of narcotics corruption to top levels of Mexico's government. On Monday, President Clinton announced a "full-court press" to dissuade U.S. legislators who are threatening to overturn his recent certification of Mexico as a drug-fighting partner.

This week's congressional vote, while largely symbolic, has raised deep-seated fears in Mexico that the powerful U.S. government could try to destabilize this country.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the appointment of the new Mexican drug czar was "highly significant" and should "convince those in Congress who have any doubts that President (Ernesto) Zedillo's commitment to wage the war against narcotics is genuine."

But the feeling in Congress appears to be running strongly against Mexico, the transshipment point for an estimated 75 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States.

The new drug czar, Herran Salvatti, 48, had been acting prosecutor for Mexico City since February, and has been involved in some of the capital's top criminal cases, including the flight of a federal prosecutor, Pablo Chapa, who had been pursuing murder charges against Raul Salinas, brother of the former president. He also oversaw hundreds of judicial police.

Supporters praised Herran Salvatti's legal abilities and said he had helped modernize the city prosecutor's office.