When Mexico‘s former drug tsar Noé Ramírez was arrested on suspicion of receiving monthly payments from the Beltrán-Leyva drug cartel he was confident the charges would quickly be dropped.
No court, he thought, would believe testimony from a former cartel member who claimed to have seen Ramírez receive a briefcase full of cash at a Mexico City restaurant – on a day he was actually travelling to Las Vegas for a meeting with US law-enforcement officials, in the company of two US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents.
Ramírez was wrong. It took four years, four months and a change of government before a judge exonerated him, ruling that not only was the witness lying, but that prosecutors might also have fabricated evidence.
“I realised that I had the whole state against me,” says Ramírez, who spent months in a high-security jail before he was released in March. “They all knew I was innocent and nobody stood up for me.”
Ramírez was one of the highest-profile officials to be imprisoned during the government of the former president Felipe Calderón in a string of cases relying on uncorroborated testimony from protected witnesses – many with the apparent seal of approval of the US. The collapse of the cases raises embarrassing questions about the US role in anti-narcotic operations in Mexico just as Washington is renegotiating the terms of its collaboration with the new administration of Enrique Peña Nieto.
Addicts prepare to inject heroin at a drug den in Ciudad Juárez.
Numbers of drug users have soared with the rise of the cartels. Photograph: Reuters Anti-narcotics co-operation has been in the spotlight ahead of Barack Obama’s two-day visit to Mexico, amid press reports that the Mexican government is insisting on more control over US activity in the country.
About 70,000 people are thought to have died in drug war violence during Calderón’s six-year term, and violence has continued at the same level since Peña Nieto took office in December. Few deny that the cartels have succeeded in penetrating state institutions, but the string of failed cases has raised the possibility that prosecutions depend more on political feuding than solid evidence of criminal collusion.
Ramírez believes that US pressure on Mexico to root out corrupt officials was a driving force behind the wave of detentions in late 2008 called Operación Limpieza (Operation Cleanup), in which his was the biggest scalp. At the time the US government was preparing to release the first $400m ($250m) from a multi-year anti-narcotics aid package called the Merida Initiative.
“It was important to show the Americans that Mexico was going after corruption,” Ramírez said.
The star witness in many of the Operation Cleanup cases (including the one against Ramírez), was a male former cartel lawyer who went by the codename “Jennifer”.
According to the weekly news magazine Proceso, “Jennifer” was first used by Mexican investigators after approaching the DEA. He was also involved in undercover DEA operations in Ecuador in 2010 and 2011, according to the newspaper Reforma. Court documents from the Ramírez trial show that “Jennifer” ratified his declarations before the judge in Mexico through a video link-up from the US.
According to one former US law-enforcement official, Mexican officials would approach their US counterparts in search of evidence, not the other way around.
Mexican officials “would detain someone and then call us up and say, ‘Do you have anything on him?,” the former official told the Associated Press. “It was arrest first and ask questions later. This isn’t against their law, not out of the ordinary. That’s the system.”
US agencies active in Mexico have long depended on intelligence from informers – but not all those informers are reliable, said a security expert, Raul Benítez. “They have good information, bad information and very bad information,” he said. “The problem is how you work out which is which.”
And by the time the witness testimony found its way into anti-corruption cases, it had been filtered through the seething internal power struggles and personal vendettas within Calderón’s offensive against organised crime.
The former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, right, with the then federal police chief, Genaro García Luna, in Mexico City. Photograph: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty
Diplomatic cables sent from the US embassy in Mexico in 2008 and 2009, and revealed by WikiLeaks, are filled with concern over the way these rivalries were perverting the use of intelligence. One cable dated 27 October 2009 lauds efforts to crack down on corruption even as it bemoans the damage done by the “deep personal animosity” between the then attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora (now ambassador to the US), and public security minister, Genaro García Luna.
According to Samuel González, a security expert and former drug tsar himself, the case against Ramírez (who was a subordinate of Medina Mora) was triggered by García Luna’s anger at the prosecution of his own right-hand man: Gerardo Garay, then head of the federal police.
Garay was arrested following a raid on a party at a Colombian trafficker’s mansion near Mexico City in October 2008. Officials who participated in the raid – and several guests who were arrested – later testified that Garay had been in no hurry to leave the faux-medieval mansion, which had its own private zoo including an albino tiger and a couple of panthers. They claimed he shut himself in the jacuzzi for the night with four women, chosen from among the detainees, along with a supply of cocaine. When he finally left he allegedly took with him $500,000 in cash, expensive jewellery and a bulldog. Garay was cleared of protecting drug traffickers and abuse of authority in November 2011, but convicted of theft. That conviction was overturned a year later, days before Calderón left office. In a television interview hours after his release, Garay claimed he had been a “political prisoner” within an effort orchestrated by the attorney general’s office to undo the good work of the federal police..
“García Luna demanded that Calderón go after Noé Ramírez because of the legal proceedings against Garay. He demanded somebody of the same rank,” said González.
Another high-level federal police officer called Javier Herrera Valles was arrested on dubious protected-witness testimony after expressing his suspicions that García Luna’s anti-cartel operations were deliberately pointless.
Herrera Valles sent two private letters to the president detailing his concerns, but when he got no response from Calderón, he took his suspicions to the media. He was arrested in November 2008 on his way to a television interview. “I sent the letters because I thought the president was being misled about what was happening on the ground,” said Herrera, who was released in September 2012. “Now I think the president backed the decision to go after me.”
The arrest of an army General, Tomás Ángeles, in May 2012, was similarly interpreted as retaliation for his outspoken criticism of the president’s drug war strategy – although recent allegations suggest a link to power struggles within the army
Ángeles was released shortly after Ramírez when officials in the new administration dropped charges against him. As with Ramírez and Herrera Valles, the prosecution case was partly based on information from “Jennifer”.
A common factor in the cases was the involvement of Marisela Morales, the woman who replaced Ramírez as drug tsar in July 2008. Morales has always denied long-standing accusations in the Mexican press that she frequently moulded cases to suit political ends. “The attorney general’s office has acted in strict accordance with the law as well as responsibility in every single one of our cases,” she said in August 2012 in answer to a specific question about the arrest of Ángeles. “The only interest that exists is to apply the law and ensure the constitution is upheld.”
Morales personally interrogated “Jennifer”, as well as another star protected witness used in the cases, according to Proceso magazine. Even if she was not in the room, Mexican law-enforcement experts say it is very unlikely she would not have been fully informed of the details of such important cases.
A soldier walks past guns seized from traffickers. The six-year struggle against the cartels has so far killed some 70,000 people. Photograph: Edgard Garrido/Reuters
There is no evidence that the DEA or any other US agency was directly involved in building the dubious narco-corruption cases. But US authorities seemed to have taken the charges against Ramírez at face value, and the case was repeatedly cited in congressional committees as proof of Calderón’s commitment to pursue cartel infiltration – even though at least two DEA agents knew that Ramírez’s alibi was true.
Following his arrest in 2008, Ramírez’s lawyer requested documents from US customs that would prove that he was going through customs in Las Vegas airport at about the time “Jennifer” said he was accepting a case full of dollars. Court documents show the documents did not arrive until May 2012.
By then Morales had been promoted to attorney general, three weeks after she had been honoured by Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton at a ceremony in Washington as one of 10 “International Women of Courage” in March 2011.
Since leaving office in December, Morales has disappeared from public life. García Luna is rumoured to be living in Miami, though there has been no official notification of this and he has made no comment since leaving office.
A senior DEA official at its Washington headquarters declined to comment on the collapse of the narco corruption cases.
In the wake of the mess left by Operation Cleanup, the more professional demeanour of the new attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, has been widely welcomed in Mexico, even though few analysts expect politics to be removed from judicial procedures altogether. Karam has promised to investigate the fabrication of evidence in the Ramírez case and the specific role played by “Jennifer”.
In the meantime, bilateral anti-narcotics co-operation still faces the thorny problem of how to attack collusion with the drug cartels, which remains a major problem within Mexican law enforcement. In the words of Ramírez: “If we are not the guilty ones, where are they?”