Saturday, April 24, 2010

Keeping His Spies Close, and Maybe a Cartel Closer

The New York Times

The tenure of Mauricio Fernández, center, has stirred a debate about how best to deal with drugs.

San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico — Perhaps only in Mexico could the mayor of a wealthy suburb run his own intelligence operation, complete with confidential informants inside organized crime and a network so formidable that he can announce the murder of a major mobster before law enforcement officials have even found the body.

Mauricio Fernández is such a mayor, and his stormy six months in office here have been marked by scandal and unexpected twists. “If the devil gives me information, I buy it,” he said recently, explaining how a well-known drug dealer came to be his informant.

To his detractors, Mr. Fernández, 59, appears to have too many questionable ties to the Beltrán Leyva drug organization, one of the country’s most powerful cartels, based in Sinaloa State. Many theorize that he has appeased that gang in return for peace and protection from the Zetas, another violent group that has branched out into extortion and kidnapping.

His defenders say the opposite is true, that he has run organized crime out of this elegant town of walled mansions with his own teams of spies and extrajudicial enforcers, putting his own life at risk in the process.

Whichever line of thinking one believes, Mr. Fernández’s tenure as the mayor of Mexico’s wealthiest enclave has stirred up a debate about how best to deal with the warring drug gangs tearing the country apart. It also shows just how tangled up with organized crime even the richest and most powerful communities in Mexico have become.

Mr. Fernández, a former mayor and gubernatorial candidate, came back to power last fall after a campaign in which he promised to “armor” the town against criminals. Set in the jagged hills on the southern edge of Monterrey, San Pedro had endured a spike in kidnappings, murder and extortion rackets in recent years.

The day he took the oath of office, on Oct. 31, Mr. Fernández stunned supporters by announcing that a notorious local drug dealer, Héctor “El Negro” Saldaña, would no longer trouble the good people of San Pedro. He was no more, the mayor said. (He later said he had received death threats from Mr. Saldaña.)

The announcement, coming hours before the authorities discovered Mr. Saldaña’s body stuffed in the trunk of a car in Mexico City, quickly grew into a bigger story. Refusing to believe the mayor was merely prescient, reporters began to badger him.

In early December, he finally admitted to having a network of informants, or “intelligence squads.” What is more, he claimed he had recruited bands of toughs, known as “rude groups,” to scare off drug dealers extorting money from businesses and other criminals. These squads of former police officers and other muscle-bound types, he said, would be paid with private funds from big business.

He has given no details about the vigilantes, and some local politicians doubt they even exist. He declined a request to be interviewed for this article. “The situation is delicate,” he said.

At the same time, he moved quickly to purge corrupt police officers from the town’s force, eliminating more than 30 after they failed lie-detector tests and other exams intended to weed out dishonest officers, said his spokeswoman, Blanca Mayor.

The strategy seemed to work. Crime dropped, residents said. Kidnappings all but ceased. Local merchants stopped receiving extortion threats. The mayor claimed victory.

All this has happened against a backdrop of spiraling gangland warfare throughout the state of Nuevo León and in its capital, Monterrey. For six months, the Gulf Cartel has been battling its former allies, the Zetas, for control of the area, with the military trying to intervene to restore order.

But Mr. Fernández has been undermined in the last month by several events that suggest to some that he has achieved peace because of his ties to mobsters he had pledged to get rid of.

For starters, a military raid to arrest an operator for the Beltrán Leyva organization turned up a cache of arms and a Ford Explorer with the insignia of the city’s security forces.

Then, on March 19, Mexican marines arrested the reputed head of the Beltrán Leyva organization in the town, Alberto Mendoza Contreras, along with one of his lieutenants. They were accused not only of moving drugs, but of tracking down people for some of the most notorious drug capos in Sinaloa.

The next day, the mayor said Mr. Mendoza had been a paid informant in his own intelligence operation, providing valuable information about corrupt police officers. The mayor said he had no idea that Mr. Mendoza was tied to the Beltrán Leyva gang. Later, he added that the federal Interior Ministry knew he was paying Mr. Mendoza for intelligence, provoking a broadside against him from the authorities in Mexico City.

Most recently, the military accused the local police of leading them into an ambush. The police were escorting a military vehicle as it took a man suspected of drug dealing to federal prosecutors. Gunmen ambushed the car in an attempt to free the prisoner, and the soldiers claimed the lead police car gave a signal to the drug dealers. Though the ambushers failed, five city police officers were arrested on suspicion of tipping them off.

Gonzalo Miguel Adalid Mier, the police chief, vehemently denied that his men had signaled the cartel gunmen. “I don’t think they were alerted by any of us,” he said.

It is not the first time Mr. Fernández, a member of one of the richest and most influential business families in Mexico, has inspired controversy. During his run for governor in 2003 he announced that he supported legalizing drugs. And he suggested that it was sometimes necessary for politicians to make deals with drug gangs to maintain the peace.

More recently, he has been sparring with the administration of President Felipe Calderón over the military crackdown on drug traffickers, saying that it has led to a gangland war and that the government should take the profit out of the business through legalization.

Though some of his political rivals are clucking at his current troubles, many residents of San Pedro say they are happy the violence raging in the rest of the state has so far been kept outside their community. A recent poll showed 9 out of 10 residents supporting him.

“People support him because if there’s something bad happening, it passes us by,” said Anamaría Conejo Vargas, whose family owns a small trucking business. “And if he has ties to bad people, well, it’s all right.”

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