Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mayors' Release a Setback in Mexican Drug War

Up to 10 mayors arrested, from top to left. Mayors of Tumbiscatío, Apatzingán, Coahuayana, centro izq. De Zitácuaro, de Aquila, Arteaga, Tepalcatepec, Urapan y Cd HidalgoUruapan, Mexico - Antonio Gonzalez insists he has no idea why he was among 12 Mexican mayors arrested last year in an unprecedented roundup of elected officials accused of protecting drug traffickers.

During his eight months in jail, he says, investigators told him only that he once had lunch with a man they claimed was a cartel member.

Now, Gonzalez and six other mayors are free for lack of evidence, embarrassing the government of President Felipe Calderon, which had set out to show Mexico that no politician would be immune in his U.S.-supported war with drug gangs.

"It must be some horrible mistake," Gonzalez said he kept thinking during his time in a high-security federal prison. He even tried to keep training for a planned marathon, fashioning shorts from his pillow case so he wouldn't get his prison uniform sweaty.


"I kept thinking, this nightmare will end in the next hours, in the next days," Gonzalez said during an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press at his gated, stylishly furnished home in Uruapan, a western mountain city surrounded by lucrative avocado farms.

Gonzalez, who is a member of Calderon's conservative National Action Party, was among the first 10 mayors arrested in a stunning May 2008 operation mounted across the president's home state of Michoacan.


The state is a battleground between the Gulf cartel and the newer La Familia cartel. It is one of four Mexican states that the U.S. government urges its citizens to avoid.

Familia chose Uruapan for one of its first demonstrations of brutality, rolling five human heads onto a bar's dance floor in 2006. The city has since been besieged by violence, including the August 2008 kidnapping of a top official in Gonzalez's government, Maribel Martinez - who hasn't been seen since.

The president's opponents always questioned the timing of the sweep - just over a month before legislative elections, accusing Calderon of trying to distract public attention from a sharp economic slump and a rise in drug gang violence that has killed more than 15,000 people since he took office in late 2006.

Michoacan Gov. Leonel Godoy has demanded that the national government publicly apologize to the freed mayors.

Interior Secretary Fernando Gomez-Mont refuses, insisting the mayors remain under investigation. He says their release under orders from a federal judge does not mean they are innocent.

The stumble in trying to prosecute the mayors underlines how difficult it is to prove that elected officials protect drug gangs, said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia who has written about Mexico's cartels.

"It was really a shot across the bow for the political class. Regrettably, it seems to have backfired," Grayson said. If any of the mayors are guilty, he added, "it shows there is impunity among the political class. And it's brazen."

The Attorney General's Office has refused to give details about the evidence against the mayors or why the case against seven of them seems to have fallen apart. Three of the mayors were released soon after they were arrested, while Gonzalez and three others were quietly let go Jan. 30.

Gonzalez said that while he was jailed, federal investigators repeatedly questioned on the whereabouts of his kidnapped government official, insisting the mayor was somehow involved. One investigators claimed they had recorded his telephone conversations for six months, Gonzalez said.

He said he kept waiting for them to show him evidence but he insists they never did. When he received his formal indictment, he said it mentioned only that he had once lunched with a cartel member named "Gomez." Gonzalez said he has no idea who the investigator was talking about.

After a federal judge ordered his release, the Michoacan state legislature quickly voted to restore Gonzalez to office. But he won't be putting his ordeal behind him anytime soon.

Some 100 of his opponents - mostly community organizers and labor leaders - have seized Uruapan's municipal palace, forcing his government to work from several buildings and even a marketplace.

They have plastered the gates with posters demanding to know where Martinez is and accusing his administration of stealing millions of dollars through phony contacts - a charge that is supported by the woman who was appointed interim mayor while Gonzalez was jailed.

Gonzalez, who owns a local Xerox concession, denies the allegations - or that he ever had any contact with organized crime.

One witness in the case against the mayors claimed that nobody in Michoacan can get elected without help from cartels, Gonzalez said.

"I can assure that, first of all, in my case it's not true, and that it is not a rule," he said.

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