Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press: Soldiers at a Mexico City ceremony on May 14.
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
The biggest military corruption case here in recent years has worsened an already frayed relationship between American law enforcement officials and the Mexican Army, the institution most trusted and empowered by officials here to fight the drug war.
The case involves the arrests this month of four formerly high-ranking army officers, including a former under secretary of defense, who are suspected of passing information to the Beltrán Leyva drug gang for money. For some Americans, the arrests confirm a longstanding wariness of the army, and have reawakened concerns about how closely it may be linked to the gang, one of the top traffickers of cocaine to the United States and a particular focus of American drug agents.
American exasperation with the army reached a high point in 2009 when, fed up with what they saw as unusual foot-dragging by the army after it failed to act on American intelligence on the leader of Beltrán Leyva, the Americans turned to the Mexican Navy for help. The ensuing raid turned into a publicity coup for the navy when the gang leader was killed.
A meeting last year between American law enforcement agents and Mexican Army commanders to try to work through their differences ended abruptly. “It was basically 15 minutes, hello and goodbye,” said one official with knowledge of the meeting.
Much of what doomed it were bad feelings over leaked diplomatic cables from the American ambassador at the time, Carlos Pascual, who had vented about the army’s refusal to go after the Beltrán Leyva gang more aggressively. Mexican officials, including President Felipe Calderón, were outraged, and Mr. Pascual eventually resigned.
Now, several current and former American officials agreed, the detention of three generals and a lieutenant colonel accused of supplementing their civil servant salaries with drug profits has shaken the officer corps.
“The D.E.A. 99 percent of the time is going to deal with Mexican law enforcement, not the military,” said Michael Braun, a former chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He recited a series of army-related corruption cases, including the 1997 conviction, on organized-crime charges, of a former general who was the country’s drug czar.
Still, American officials professed to be as puzzled as anybody else about why the military officers had been detained now, after three, including Tomás Ángeles Dauahare, the former defense under secretary, left the military; one, a general, was on active duty. It was unclear, the American officials said, if there was some hidden urgency or if the arrests merely reflected turmoil in the army ahead of the July 1 presidential election and the victor’s eventual appointment of new leadership at the Defense Ministry. Prosecutors have not divulged much about the case.
The army has played a pivotal, if reluctant, role — commanders have privately complained that they have no police training and that soldiers are too exposed to drug traffickers — in the antidrug offensive that Mr. Calderón began in 2006. Nearly 50,000 soldiers have fanned out across the country, confronting traffickers, seizing drug labs and burning marijuana crops, often replacing local police officers too corrupt or ill prepared to do their jobs.
In turning to the army, Mr. Calderón relied on one of the institutions that the Mexican public trusts most, ranked closely behind the Roman Catholic Church and universities in a survey last year by Consulta Mitofsky, a polling group.
The Americans, too, however warily, have supported the Mexican Army through a $1.4 billion antidrug program, known as the Merida Initiative, providing the army eight helicopters and training while American military officers seek to tighten bonds with their Mexican counterparts, particularly for counterterrorism efforts.
But awkward, tense encounters between American law enforcement agents and the Mexican Army are common, and they tend to themselves as distant cousins who have told ugly family stories about each other.
Few have been uglier than the case against the former officers accused of working for the Beltrán Leyva gang, known for its success in using violence and payments to corrupt and intimidate politicians, the police and, it now appears, members of the army.
The 2009 killing of the gang’s leader “will not solve Mexico's drug problem,” Mr. Pascual wrote in one cable, “but it will hopefully generate the momentum necessary to make sustained progress against other drug trafficking organizations.”
The sensitivity over that raid by the navy, and Mr. Pascual’s criticism, remains. Reluctant to antagonize a potential partner, no American official wished to be quoted by name commenting on the case of the detained generals or the state of the relationship.
From time to time, army insiders have fed tips to the Americans on generals believed to be dirty, but rarely has the Mexican government acted on them, current and former law enforcement officials said. The Reforma newspaper said 12 generals since 2000 had been accused of ties to organized crime.
American officials said that even though some of the intelligence they had passed on to Mexico about the Beltrán Leyva organization may have figured in the generals’ detention, they were not active participants in it.
“This is a Mexican investigation,” a senior State Department official said.
Mr. Calderón, in his first comments on the arrests, defended the army last week, saying, “Without the Mexican Army, the country probably would have fallen into criminal hands by now.”
“I regret and condemn that some, specifically identified, according to the evidence found by both the attorney general and the military prosecutor, may have been involved in illegal acts,” he said.
The military’s human rights record has also created tension, with a State Department report released Thursday noting complaints over unexplained disappearances and other allegations of abuse at the hands of soldiers. The report, assessing human rights around the world, took Mexico to task for tolerating official corruption and said human rights monitors called the Mexican Army “the government entity with the greatest number of human rights complaints (1,695) filed against it during the year.”
American agents all seem to have a story about suspicious Mexican Army activity.
Mr. Braun, former Drug Enforcement Agency chief of operations, recalled helping to monitor a group of police officers pursuing a drug plane in southern Mexico in the early 1990s. When it landed, the officers moved in, but they were intercepted by soldiers, who, Mr. Braun said, “executed them on the airstrip.”
“They didn’t know the military was there guarding a load,” he said. “Nobody knew that.”
Jayson P. Ahern, a former Customs and Border Protection commissioner who is now a consultant with the Chertoff Group in Washington, recalled getting regular reports of soldiers who had ended up in American territory in remote Southwestern desert areas known to be drug-trafficking routes. They always claimed to have lost track of the international boundary, a plausible explanation in dark, inhospitable terrain.
“There was never an instance where it was shown to be actual cartel activity,” Mr. Ahern said. “But it was certainly suspicious.”
The current case continues to generate plenty of intrigue. Last week, Mexico extradited to Texas an important leader in the Beltrán Leyva gang, Sergio Villarreal. Known as “El Grande,” he had been long sought by the United States, and local news reports said he had given a statement linking the detained army officers to the cartel. American officials said Mr. Villarreal’s extradition had not been tied to the corruption case.
“In the past, the Mexican Army was one of the most nationalist institutions in Mexico; they wave the sovereignty flag,” said Alonzo Peña, a former deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement who helped oversee the agency’s work in Mexico. “So it has taken a while for the law enforcement community, our officials, to embrace this effort. Law enforcement works with law enforcement. Traditionally that is the way it has been.”