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Mexican prosecutors charge top army officers in drug case

August 1, 2012 |  3:10 pm

MEXICO CITY — The Mexican attorney general’s office has formally charged an active-duty general and three retired high-ranking army officials for their alleged involvement in the drug trade, another bleak reminder of the corruption threat facing the institution charged with waging war against the country's cartels.

Gen. Roberto Dawe Gonzalez, retired Gens. Tomas Angeles Dauahare and Ricardo Escorcia Vargas,  and retired Lt. Col. Silvio Hernandez Soto had been held under house arrest since May. On Tuesday, they were charged with "organized crime with the intent to commit offenses against health."

Prosecutors did not divulge details of the case against the officers. But also charged in the case was U.S.-born Edgar "La  Barbie" Valdez Villarreal, believed to be a powerful force in the Beltran Leyva drug cartel. Valdez had been on Mexico’s most wanted list until his capture by Mexican security forces in August 2010.

In late 2006, now-outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon deployed the military to crack down on the drug cartels that operate with impunity in many parts of Mexico. More than 50,000 people have died in drug-related violence since then.

The Mexican army will probably continue to play a key role in the fight against organized crime under incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto, the winner of the July 1 election here. Although his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was known to have made deals with drug gangs in the past, he has promised that he will not forge truces with them and that he will aggressively pursue their leaders.

The army, while generally held in high esteem here, has not been immune to the corrupting influence of the cartels. In 1997, the nation’s drug czar, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested, and later convicted, for protecting a leader of the Juarez cartel. Still, a Pew poll released in June found that 80% of Mexicans supported Calderon’s decision to send the army after the drug gangs.

As The Times reported in May, one of the retired generals, Angeles, had appeared at a security forum this year sponsored by the PRI. Before the election, pundits were discussing the possibility of Angeles taking a high-ranking security post in Peña Nieto’s Cabinet. He had earlier served as an assistant defense secretary under Calderon from 2006 to 2008.

Prosecutors have denied that politics played a role in the detentions of the officers. But questions are being raised about the strength of their case. According the Mexico City newspaper Reforma, the accusations are based, at least in part, on testimony from anonymous protected witnesses, a drug trafficker who has been extradited to the U.S. and another detained army officer, who have alleged that the army officers were granting protection to planes shuttling cocaine at airports in Mexico City and Cancun.

In the newspaper Mileno on Wednesday, commentator Carlos Puig warned against rushing to judgment if there wasn’t more substantial evidence.

"I have no idea if Gen. Tomas Angeles is guilty or not of what he’s been accused of," Puig wrote. "But I think [prosecutors] don’t know either."


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-- Richard Fausset

Photo: Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villarreal, believed to be a powerful force in the Beltran Leyva drug cartel, was also charged in the case involving Mexican army officers. Above, he is escorted by federal police in Mexico City on Aug. 31, 2010. Credit: Henry Romero / Reuters