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US, Mexico finally drug-war allies

President Vicente Fox's unprecedented cooperation with the US yields big blows to Latin narcotraffickers.

After years at cross purposes, Mexico and the US are entering a new era of cooperation in fighting the narcotics trade.

Cartels have been gutted and record quantities of narcotics seized. The list of those arrested or dead reads like a 'Who's Who' of Mexico's drug underworld – evidence that two years after President Vicente Fox vowed to win the war on drug trafficking, he is making headway.

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"The Fox government just continues going," says Donald Thornhill Jr., a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego. "And we are working with them in an unprecedented manner."

"Mexico has done an outstanding job," said US drug czar John Walters on a recent visit here in late June. "They are ahead of us in attacking this problem."

Mr. Walters cited a 9 percent decline in cocaine purity in the US drug market as evidence that fewer drug shipments are making their way across the shared 2,000-mile border. Progress is also being made in slowing supplies of heroin, marijuana, Ecstasy, and meta-amphetamines, among other narcotics, Mexican records show.

Officials on both sides of the border credit the slowed flow of drugs to a closer relationship between US and Mexican antidrug agents who share information – and then act on it. US and Mexican officials say shared intelligence was crucial to the March 9 arrest of drug lord Benjamín Arellano Félix.

Drug Enforcement Administration Director Asa Hutchinson also credited joint investigation efforts for the indictment last month of senior leaders of Mexico's powerful southeast cartel. He said joint efforts toppled Consuelo Marquez, a former Lehman Brothers account representative in New York charged with participating in the laundering of millions of dollars of drug money.

Past Mexican administrations often ignored advice from the US, and in some cases, corrupt officials used it to help drug bosses steer clear of problems.

Mexican Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha described Mexico's former policing and investigation network as "structurally dysfunctional" and said reforms put in place were slowly turning it into "a professional police corporation," less susceptible to corruption.

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Fox has sent in federal police and the military to make arrests or to intervene in locations where local police were considered too deeply corrupted, officials say. In April, for example, soldiers and federal officers detained more than 100 police officers in the border town of Tijuana on charges they took bribes and helped drug cartels. More than 50 were flown to Mexico City under heavy guard.

"The tempo and magnitude of disruption and arrests of leaders of these organizations is like we have never seen before – in any country," Walters said.

In all, Mexican government documents say, more than 11,350 drug-trafficking arrests have been made since Fox took power in December 2000, including a dozen drug bosses and almost 200 of their deputies, assassins, and financiers.

The high-profile arrests include:

• Benjamín Arellano Félix, the leader of the multibillion-dollar Arellano Félix Organization (AFO) arrested in March.

• Adán Medrano Rodríguez, known as operations chief of the Matamoros-based Gulf Cartel, arrested in March.

• Albino Quintero Meraz, arrested in late May. Mr. Meraz, and other drug bosses ran a multi-billion-dollar operation that once trafficked more than 10 percent of all the cocaine sold in the US.

Some evidence shows that South American cocaine growers are concerned. Colombian cartels, says experts, are no longer willing to provide drugs on a credit basis.

That prompted one US law enforcement official to compare the troubled Arellano Felix Organization with the bankrupt energy firm Enron.

"Investors don't want to put money into a company if they don't think they'll get their money back," the US official says. "All of a sudden, AFO looks like a pretty bad investment, just like Enron."

And though authorities here and in the US say the gouging of Mexico's cartels will continue, they also say it looks as if certain leagues are regrouping, and that some drug lords are moving in on – or fighting over – newly available turf.

Authorities in Mexico and the US say Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, a drug boss operating out of eastern Sinaloa state, appears to be battling for key drug routes to the lucrative California market with hangers-on from the AFO. The Gulf Cartel, though weakened, is still operational.

Officials say that the war on drugs has yet to be won in Mexico, still considered the major transit point for the majority of the billions of dollars of illicit narcotics that reach the US annually.

Indeed, last week authorities seized some 5,000 pounds of marijuana at three sites in Tijuana, a sign that there's still a long way to go.

"You do the math," says Mr. Thornhill. "They still have lots of worker bees."

Some experts predict a geographic shift in drug trafficking. If Mexico becomes too dangerous for drug cartels, they may rely more on ocean routes in the Pacific and Caribbean, which are harder to patrol.

Others compare what's happening in Mexico to the dismantling of Colombia's Cali and Medellin cartels in the early 1990s.Though the demise of drug lords like Pablo Escobar briefly brought down levels of cocaine moving to the US market, the megacartels were eventually replaced by smaller, less visible operations.

"This makes it harder to chase them down because they are less identifiable," says Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City expert on organized crime. "But it makes it easier to keep down the level of general violence."

Fox, in the end, may be the biggest winner – in the political arena.

"There is a very large political value to this since it gives more legitimacy to the Mexican government to negotiate with the US," says Mr. Chabat. "That is great for Mexico."