By José de Córdoba and David Luhnow for The Wall Street Journal. The arrest of a former deputy defense minister and three other retired and active high-ranking Mexican army officers on suspicion of having been in the pay of a drug cartel is shaping up as the biggest scandal to hit the army in years.
Last week, a judge issued preliminary detention orders for three generals and a lieutenant colonel. The move allows prosecutors from the organized-crime division of the Attorney General’s Office to question the men for up to 40 days before formal charges would need to be filed.
Officials haven’t said why the men are being held. But according to the men’s relatives, a person familiar with the legal proceedings and media accounts citing unnamed sources in the Attorney General’s Office, the four are being questioned over allegations they were in the pay of one of Mexico’s leading organized crime groups, the Beltran Leyva cartel.
“I regret and condemn that a few individual members [of the armed forces], according to evidence found by the Attorney General’s Office and the military prosecutors, have taken part in illicit acts,” President Felipe Calderon said this week. “The only thing that is clear here is that my government won’t tolerate illegal acts, regardless of who commits them.”
The scandal could turn out to be the biggest since 1997, when Mexico’s acting antidrug czar, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was arrested and sentenced to 40 years for working on behalf of late drug lord Amado Carillo.
It is the biggest drug-related scandal since Mr. Calderon took office in December 2006 and deployed roughly 45,000 soldiers to different parts of the country to take on the drug gangs.
The highest-profile detainee is Gen. Tomas Angeles, whom Mr. Calderon appointed the second-ranking official in the Defense Ministry in 2006. Gen. Angeles served until he retired in 2008.
The detentions come just two months before presidential elections in July, spurring speculation in Mexico’s press and among many analysts that the detentions may have to do with presidential or barracks politics.
Gen. Angeles, who served as Mexico’s military attaché in Washington, was considered to be angling for a top security job if Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, wins the presidency.
Gen. Angeles, known for his acid comments about other generals, including the current defense secretary, recently took part in a security conference organized by the PRI. There, he criticized Mr. Calderon’s security policies as well as the army’s actions in the drug war. Mr. Peña Nieto, who also spoke at the conference, enjoys a 20-point lead in the polls over his rivals.
“Everything points to an internal military vendetta,” according to a top former government official.
Since Gen. Angeles’s detention, Mr. Peña Nieto has distanced himself from the retired general, saying he had “no personal relationship” with him.
Relatives of the men say they are innocent. Leticia Zepeda, the wife of Gen. Angeles, said her husband told her the accusations were absolutely false. He also told her he wasn’t allowed to see his lawyer for a week after his detention, during which time she said he was represented by a lawyer appointed by the Attorney General’s Office.
Linking Gen. Angeles to a drug cartel makes little sense given his ambitions of becoming secretary of defense, said Raúl Benitez, a security analyst at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. Such aspirations would have put the general in the position of being closely watched by both U.S. and Mexican intelligence services, making it likely that the general would have taken care not to associate with drug traffickers, Mr. Benitez said.
“If you are ambitious, the last thing you do is mess with narcos,” he said. “It’s suicide.”
The arrests would be demoralizing for the military, which has been on the front lines of Mr. Calderon’s war against the cartels, Mr. Benitez added. “Angeles is a very well-liked leader in the army,” he said. “He developed a lot of contacts with politicians, journalists, academics and U.S. officials.”
U.S. officials who work with Mexican on counternarcotics issues say they haven’t seen any information from their Mexican counterparts about the matter, a break from past practices where Mexican and U.S. officials share intelligence.
A U.S. official said he didn’t think the U.S. government had anything to do with the detentions. “It’s not our doing, best as I can tell,” the official said.
The Attorney General’s Office, in an apparent response to widespread press speculation, denied on May 17 the detentions were politically motivated. “They have no political connotations or any relation to the campaigns or the candidates in the election,” it said in a statement.
The other military officers detained in Mexico were Gen. Ricardo Escorcia, who retired in 2010 after having commanded a military region with its base in Cuernavaca, a resort city south of Mexico City considered to be Beltran Leyva territory; Brig. Gen. Roberto Dawe, an active duty officer; and retired Lieutenant Colonel Silvio Hernandez.
Gen. Dawe, who had recently been part of President Calderon’s security detail, was at the time of his arrest in charge of a military zone that includes the state of Colima, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Speaking to Mexican reporters, Guadalupe Garcia, the wife of Gen. Dawe, said her husband had faithfully served his country only to have been “abandoned” by the army.
The U.S.’s anti-narcotics cooperation with Mexico hadn’t been undermined by the officers’ detention, said Lieut. Col. Robert Ditchey, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense.
“It has not had any impact on DoD’s counter-narcotics cooperation with the Mexican military,” Lt. Col Ditchey wrote in an email. “Our relationship remains strong, and we are impressed by the courage and bravery of the Mexican forces, both military and police.”
Mexican media accounts, citing unnamed officials from the Attorney General’s office, say the four men are suspected of giving information to the Beltran Leyva cartel.
According to a person familiar with the prosecution file against Gen. Angeles, the accusations against him appear to be based on information provided in 2010 depositions by a protected witness. This witness, a former lawyer for the Beltran Leyva organization who became a government informant, provided information for a 2008 investigation that led to a purge of top officials at the Attorney General’s office, some of whom were imprisoned after they were found to be in the pay of the Beltran Leyva gang.
In the deposition, this informant says that he gave $500,000 a month to an army mayor to pass on to a “Gen. Dauahare”—Gen. Angeles’s full name is Angeles Dauahare—but never met with the general himself, according to the person who has seen the file. The prosecutor’s file also has a statement from the army major who denies receiving any money from the person.
The Beltran Leyva organization, founded by four brothers, was once allied with the Sinaloa Cartel, whose chief, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is considered Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficker.