With new attorney general, Mexico tries to revamp drug war

Associated Press and Associated Press

MEXICO CITY – With a new attorney general, Mexican President Felipe Calderon is trying to get even tougher on drug cartels and those who protect them.

But critics say he tapped the wrong man for the job: Arturo Chavez was mired in controversy as attorney general of a border state where corruption ran rampant and hundreds of women were raped and murdered with impunity.

In nominating Chavez, Calderon clearly sided with Mexico’s top cop, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, in an increasingly bitter rivalry with outgoing Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora. Chavez and Garcia Luna are allies from the same faction of the ruling party.

While Medina-Mora focused on restructuring Mexico’s justice system, Garcia Luna won praise for carrying out the bulk of the 80,000 drug arrests since Calderon took office in 2006. He oversees thousands of federal police working alongside soldiers in the country’s drug hotspots.

‘This backs the muscular approach as they try to ramp up their capabilities to fight the cartels,’ said George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William ‘amp; Mary in Virginia. Unlike Medina-Mora, he said, Garcia Luna ‘doesn’t spend a lot of time contemplating policy. He wants to put policy into action.’

Calderon’s all-out war on the cartels has drawn criticism as the death toll topped 13,500, and his party lost ground in midterm congressional elections in July. There has also been growing discontent among the armed forces, which want more action against politicians who protect the cartels.

‘It’s one thing to go after capos, but behind the capos are those who are benefiting from the drug dealing – the governors, senators, deputies, mayors and thousands of civilian public officials,’ Grayson said.

‘The military is furious that there are governors who live high on the hog while they are putting troops in harm’s way. That is the buzz among the brass.’

Chavez, who still faces a tough battle for confirmation in Mexico’s senate, is relatively little known on the national stage. But in Chihuahua – across the border from Texas and home to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s deadliest city – women’s groups lined up to criticize his record.

During his 1996-98 term as state attorney general, state police botched investigations into the murders of hundreds of women whose bodies turned up dead in the desert outside Ciudad Juarez so badly that former President Vicente Fox later had to send in federal prosecutors to take over the cases.

Activists accused Chihuahua state officials of torturing suspects, contaminating and falsifying evidence and harassing victims’ relatives.

Chavez drew fire for suggesting the victims were partly to blame ‘for wearing miniskirts.’ He recommended women take karate classes and carry pepper-spray.

‘God help us,’ said Victoria Caraveo, a women’s activist in Ciudad Juarez. ‘He did nothing when faced with this problem in Juarez. What will he do as attorney general for Mexico?’

Calderon says there is no better man to lead his drug war.

‘I am sure that Mr. Arturo Chavez has the necessary knowledge and experience to carry out the delicate work of the attorney general, above all in these times when Mexico is building its future by decisively confronting organized crime,’ Calderon said Monday in announcing Medina-Mora’s resignation.

Chavez was not present during the announcement and could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Calderon indicated Chavez’s experience in Chihuahua was an asset. Chihuahua is home to the Juarez cartel, which is locked in a bloody battle with the Sinaloa cartel for lucrative drug routes into the United States. More than 1,300 people have been killed by drug violence in Ciudad Juarez alone this year.

Federal congresswoman Maria Antonieta Perez, of Calderon’s National Action Party, said that means Chavez can hit the ground running.

‘He is incorruptible, capable and knows the issues of drug trafficking well,’ she said.