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Drug War Corruption in Colombia and Mexico

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The corrosive effect of easy money from the drug trade continues to corrupt anti-drug institutions in Colombia and Mexico, according to government officials in both countries. In Columbia, the Anti-Narcotics Police have been living high off US anti-drug money, and in Mexico, an army battalion in Sinaloa has apparently been in cahoots with local drug growers. In both cases, law enforcement groups relatively new to the drug war are seeing their reputations tarnished. It's a familiar refrain; here are the latest verses:

The Colombian attorney general's office reported this week that the Anti-Narcotics Police have diverted at least $2 million in US anti-drug assistance to "superfluous purchases," as the Bogota newspaper El Tiempo gently put it. Those purchases -- or more precisely, purchase orders -- paid for car repairs that were never done, construction materials for buildings that were never built, personal cell phone bills and vacation flights.

Seventy-one members of the Anti-Narcotics Police and 11 civilians are under investigation for "fattening" their back accounts with the aid money, according to the Ministry of Justice. Included are former Anti-Narcotics Police director retired Gen. Gustavo Socha Salamanca and the former private secretary to the police high command, retired Col. Edgar Guillermo Bejarano. Socha Salamanca is accused of not exercising sufficient controls over his subordinates, while Bejarano is accused of using the aid accounts as his personal bankroll.

The attorney general's office said Bejarano used agency helicopters, vehicles and properties for his own purposes, while other police officers used the aid money to buy compact discs and to pay off large personal cell phone bills -- up to $700 in one month by one officer. Other US aid monies disappeared as payments for car repairs for vehicles that didn't exist or that did not belong to the Anti-Narcotics Police. According to the attorney general's report, some police members were running a racket in which they contracted with friends or family members who owned auto repair shops to bill the police for fictitious repairs. Investigators also found purchases of construction materials supposedly to be used at police bases in the interior of the country. But the commanders of those bases told investigators there was no construction and they were not aware of plans for construction. The attorney general's office named Bejarano as the person responsible for the bogus buildings.

Anti-Narcotics Police apparently also enjoyed flying around Colombia on the US funds, the report found -- or not. According to the report, numerous payments were made for airline flights that were either not taken or were not justified by official business.

The Colombian police have been a favorite beneficiary of the largesse of Republican congressional drug warriors, who have long contended they are efficient drug fighters. They might want to think again. "The largest percentage of the resources spent were oriented toward administrative costs, restricting the use of funds for operational purposes, which are the ultimate goal of the [US aid] agreement," the report concluded with considerable understatement.

In Colombia, drug warriors turned to the police because they didn't trust the armed forces. In Mexico, drug warriors turned to the armed forces because they didn't trust the police. In both cases, the result is the corruption of the shiny new drug fighting organization. For almost two weeks, the 650 soldiers who make up the Mexican Army's 65th Infantry Battalion, located in Guamuchil, Sinaloa, have been held on-base as higher-ups investigate links with local opium and marijuana growers. On Monday, relatives of the detained soldiers accused the army of subjecting them to physical abuse and torture.

The army denied it, but Gen. Clemente Ricardo Vega Garcia, the Mexican defense secretary, announced Monday that the unit would be disbanded because it had been infiltrated by drug traffickers. "There was no imprisonment on base, there are no tortures, and the unit will be disbanded and will probably disappear," Vega Garcia told Televisa. Vega added that 48 soldiers had tested positive in drug tests and that three officers, including a lieutenant who is now a fugitive, had links to the drug trade. Soldiers were free to leave the base, he said.

But the state Human Rights Commission and an attorney hired by some of the soldiers disputed Vega Garcia's contentions. More than 100 soldiers remain detained on base under suspicion of taking payments from drug growers, the attorney, who requested anonymity for his personal safety, told El Universal on Tuesday. Ten soldiers had already been charged and transported to military brigs, the attorney said.

The state Human Rights Commission visited the military base Monday to take testimonies and lodge complaints from soldiers' families that the troops had been forced to kneel with their hands behind their heads for hours at a time and had been beaten in an effort to force them to confess. The lock-down came after repeated denunciations from the area, said Vega Garcia. Upon investigation, "it was unfortunately shown that some elements of the unit did not comply with the commitment to fight the drug trade," he said. That could not be tolerated by the Fox government, which had "always marked a line to keep the Army's activities clean and to prevent all types of corruption," said Vega Garcia. When asked by Televisa whether he wanted the army to continue its drug-fighting efforts despite the risks of corruption, Vega Garcia replied: "Of course, because the army does 73% of the marijuana and poppy eradication -- tell me who could take over, what entity or institution could relieve us? We have to continue. The president considers it a matter of national security."

Philip Smith edits DRCNet's Week Online.