Mexico's Attorney General Jesus Murillo has dropped corruption charges against Tomas Angeles, a retired army general and deputy defense minister, just the latest of the premier anti-corruption prosecutions pushed by former President Felipe Calderon to collapse, illustrating the continued fragility of the judicial system.
Mexico City's El Universal newspaper reported that federal prosecutors were likely to drop the charges against Angeles in the wake of a court ruling earlier this week throwing out the charges against a former chief of the attorney general's anti-organized crime unit, Noe Ramirez Mandujano. Murillo made it official April 17. A judge later released the former general.
A federal judge ruled that evidence of connivance with the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) against Ramirez presented by a protected witness, code-named "Jennifer," was fabricated. Ramirez had been arrested in 2008, along with two dozen other officials from the anti-crime unit, in a much ballyhooed operation dubbed "Operation Cleanup."
Testimony from "Jennifer," actually a male protected witness, also was key in the case against Angeles, two other generals and several lower ranking officers arrested in May 2012 on charges of aiding the BLO.
Some observers at the time suggested Angeles' arrest was a consequence of infighting within the army high command surrounding the naming of a new defense secretary that would follow last year's presidential elections.
President Enrique Peña Nieto on Tuesday signaled his government's willingness to not pursue the corruption cases, saying the unraveled case against Ramirez reflected deep deficiencies in the country's justice apparatus.
"I believe all these cases give a very clear lesson," Peña said at a Tuesday forum on anti-crime efforts. "What we have to do is train, prepare the prosecutors offices, the prosecutors, the police investigators in gathering evidence and in scientific investigation that gives the proper and sufficient support to back up any accusation."
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The dropping of the corruption cases marks an embarrassing rebuke of the six-year Washington-backed efforts by Calderon's administration to reform the justice system, clean up corruption and fight organized crime. Indeed, the training of federal police and prosecutors was a key target of the $1.6 billion in US aid to Mexico under the Merida Initiative.
The cases against Noe Ramirez and a series of military officials appeared to underscore some advances. And, in many ways, the destruction of the BLO was a hallmark of the Calderon government. The BLO fragmented after the December 2009 killing of kingpin Arturo Beltran by US backed Mexican marines and appeared to be reeling. But the group has since rebounded, with the help from some formidable allies, the Zetas. Arturo's brother, Hector, now controls the remnants of the gang, which still has a strong presence along the Pacific Coast and the outskirts of Mexico City.
While no one doubts that the gangsters' connections with officials have nurtured their survival, the cases also underscored just how brittle Mexico's justice system actually is. Calderon learned that lesson when he decided to take on the gangs: civilian security forces proved woefully unprepared, soldiers poor policemen, prosecutors and judges inadequate guardians of justice. Six years on, and that goal of professionalizing police and prosecutors remains a goal rather than a reality.
Peña has expressed support for continued cooperation with Washington under the auspices of Merida. But changes in the programs focus are likely and indeed were called for this week by Mexican foreign minister Jose Antonio Meade.
However, Peña's larger anti-crime strategy remains undefined. He has said it would be unfair to judge its effectiveness before the year is out. But the tattered cases against Ramirez and the generals -- regardless of whether they had any merit or not -- hint at just how steep a hill Peña, his security team, and US planners will be treading.