High-profile corruption cases fall apart in Mexico

Retired Mexican Army General Tomas Angeles Dauahare, center, is escorted by unidentified members of his legal team as he leaves the Altiplano maximum security prison in Almoloya de Juarez, Mexico, Thursday, April 18, 2013. Federal prosecutors have dropped organized crime charges against Dauahare, accused of aiding a drug cartel after determining that the witness testimony was not enough to sustain their case. He had been in prison since last year, charged with protecting members of the Beltran Leyva cartel. (AP Photo)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — In just one week, some of Mexico's most high-profile corruption cases have unraveled on thin or made-up evidence, reinforcing long-held notions that the Attorney General's Office is more focused on political vendettas or favors than justice.

The cases against a former drug czar and a former No. 2 in the Defense Department accused of links to drug cartels were thrown out within days last week. In one, the judge determined that witness testimonies were false, and the other case dissolved because prosecutors couldn't find evidence to support the charges.

Many blamed the failed prosecutions on former President Felipe Calderon's administration, which prepared the cases.

Experts say that such faulty prosecutions are the product of a Mexican justice system dominated by political interests and hindered by questionable police work and organizational problems. Some cases lose credibility because they are deemed to involve political payback or favors, while others are undermined by shoddy investigations done in the heat of the moment.

"There is a deficiency in the organization, in the presentation of investigations. There are serious technical flaws," said Javier Oliva, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who studies defense and security. "If the question is, 'Why did these cases fail?', it is because they have no legal support."

A third case that arose during Calderon's term, and targeted the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, that recently returned to power, was quietly dropped in recent weeks by Mexico's new PRI government.

An Attorney General's Office official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that he didn't know why federal prosecutors decided recently they had no jurisdiction in the case that was linked to former Coahuila state Gov. Humberto Moreira and later PRI national head who saw $3 billion in public funds go missing during his tenure.

Authorities didn't earlier announce that federal prosecutors had turned the case over to local prosecutors in Moreira's home state, where his brother is now governor, but it recently became public after the decision was made in early December during the first weeks of President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration.

The corruption case, which could potentially prove embarrassing for the PRI, was aimed at two of Moreira's close associates who were discovered with unexplained wealth, including his state treasurer at the time who is now wanted in the U.S. on money-laundering charges.

In last week's release of two high-ranking drug war officials jailed under the previous administration of Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party, President Enrique Pena Nieto's government was keen to show the evidence against them was flawed. Now free, the men claimed publicly that they were the targets of political retribution by Calderon's administration and saved by the PRI, which returned to power last year after a 12-year hiatus.

Calderon's government had touted the arrests as proof of Mexico's fortitude in fighting internal corruption.

Anti-drug prosecutor Noe Ramirez was the first to be freed. He was arrested in 2008 in an internal sweep known as "Operation Clean House" on charges that he took $450,000 a month from the Beltran Leyva drug cartel.

Samuel Gonzalez, who served a decade before Ramirez in the same post, said the case against Ramirez was launched after the 2008 arrest of Gerardo Garay, then the country's acting federal police chief, for stealing money from a Mexico City mansion during a drug raid.

Garay's boss and ally, federal Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, was reportedly incensed by the arrest and demanded that Calderon prosecute someone at the Attorney General's Office in revenge, Gonzalez said.

"Garcia Luna was the one who demanded that Calderon go after Noe Ramirez, because charges had been brought against Garay, he wanted someone of the same level charged," Gonzalez said.

Then Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora, now Mexico's ambassador to the United States, did not respond to a request for comment.

Two days after Ramirez was freed, retired army Gen. Tomas Angeles Dauahare was also ordered released after the Attorney General's Office dropped the drug corruption case against him.

Angeles Dauahare, a former assistant defense secretary, told The Associated Press that he believes the case against him was political. He had openly criticized Calderon's strategy of cracking down on the drug cartels and appeared at a May campaign event for then-PRI candidate Pena Nieto. Days after the campaign appearance, he and other senior military leaders were arrested on accusations of helping the Beltran Leyva cartel.

"They tried to destroy everybody who didn't share their opinions," Angeles Dauahare said of the Calerdon government. "The Attorney General's Office was used to carry out this reprisal."

Some say prosecutors erred in largely resting their accusations on the testimony of protected witnesses, without verifying independently if additional evidence existed.

Both Ramirez and Angeles Dauahare, were arrested on the testimony of a protected witness known as "Jennifer," a former associate of the Beltran Leyva cartel who is now in the U.S., according to trial documents.

Records from Ramirez's case obtained by the AP suggest prosecutors inserted false dates into witness statements. In announcing his decision to absolve Ramirez, the judge said that accounts from people in Mexico's witness-protection program were unreliable.

As the case unfolded, prosecutors scrambled to gather whatever evidence they could against Ramirez, even reportedly calling U.S. agents to see if they had anything on him.

One former U.S. law enforcement official, who couldn't speak on the record for security reasons, said such requests were not uncommon.

Mexican officials "would detain someone and then call us up and say, 'Do you have anything on him?," the former official said. "It was arrest first and ask questions later. This isn't against their law, not out of the ordinary. That's the system."

He agreed with Oliva, the university researcher, that prosecutors lack investigative skills and have difficulty building a case.

Current Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told local media that his office will launch an investigation into "Jennifer" and the cases involving the witness's false testimony.

Murillo has said that he inherited a justice department in disarray and is reviewing previous cases as part of a reorganization. He has not released details of his progress after five months in office.

Another case from the Calerdon era that concluded with embarrassment was that of an alleged plot to smuggle the son of late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi into Mexico as his regime crumbled. Calderon's office had bragged about the "careful intelligence work" that dismantled the complex scheme in the months leading up to Mexico's 2012 presidential election.

Suspects Cynthia Vanier of Canada and Gabriela Davila Huerta of Mexico were released from custody last week after three judges determined that much of the evidence against them was collected illegally and that their basic rights were violated.


Adriana Gomez Licon on Twitter: http://twitter.com/agomezlicon