MEXICO CITY - President Felipe Calderon's war on drug trafficking has led to his own doorstep, with the arrest of a dozen high-ranking officials with alleged ties to Mexico's most powerful drug gang, the Sinaloa Cartel.
The U.S. praises Calderon for rooting out corruption at the top. But critics say the arrests reveal nothing more than a timeworn government tactic of protecting one cartel and cracking down on others.
Operation Clean House comes just as the U.S. is giving Mexico its first installment of $400 million in equipment and technology to fight drugs. Most will go to a beefed-up federal police agency run by the same people whose top aides have been arrested as alleged Sinaloa spies.
"If there is anything worse than a corrupt and ill-equipped cop, it is a corrupt and well-equipped cop," said criminal justice expert Jorge Chabat, who studies the drug trade.
U.S. drug enforcement agents say they have no qualms about sending support to Mexico.
"We've been working with the Mexican government for decades at the DEA," said Garrison Courtney, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "Obviously, we ensure that the individuals we work with are vetted."
Agents who conduct raids have long suspected Mexican government ties to Sinaloa, and rival drug gangs have advertised the alleged connection in banners hung from freeways. While raids against the rival Gulf cartel have netted suspects, those against Sinaloa almost always came up empty - or worse, said Agent Oscar Granados Salero of the Federal Investigative Agency, Mexico's equivalent of the FBI.
"Whenever we were trying to serve arrest warrants, they were already waiting for us, and a lot of colleagues lost their lives that way," Salero said.
The U.S. government estimates that the cartels smuggle $15 billion to $20 billion in drug money across the border each year.
Over the last five months, officials from the Mexican Attorney General's office, the federal police and even Mexico's representatives to Interpol have been detained on suspicion of acting as spies for Sinaloa or its one-time ally, the Beltran Leyva gang. An officer who served in Calderon's presidential guard was detained in December on suspicion of spying for Beltran Leyva.
Gerardo Garay, formerly the acting federal police chief, is accused of protecting the Beltran Leyva brothers and stealing money from a mansion during an October drug raid. Former drug czar Noe Ramirez, who was supposed to serve as point man in Calderon's anti-drug fight, is accused of taking $450,000 from Sinaloa.
Most of such tips are coming from a Mexican federal agent who infiltrated the U.S. embassy for the Beltran Leyva drug cartel. No such infiltrators have been found for the Gulf cartel, which controls most drug shipments in eastern Mexico and Central America. Sinaloa controls Pacific and western routes.
The DEA's Courtney agrees that there has been a greater crackdown on the Gulf Cartel in both the U.S. and Mexico, with more than 600 members of the gang arrested in September. But he declined to answer questions about Mexico favoring Sinaloa.
Calderon has long acknowledged corruption as an obstacle to his offensive, which involved sending more than 20,000 soldiers to battle drug trafficking throughout the country. The U.S. aid plan includes technology aimed at improving the way Mexico vets and supervises police.
The president vows to create a "new generation of police," consolidating agencies under Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, who heads all federal law enforcement.
That's what worries Granados Salero and other agents. So many of Garcia Luna's associates are under suspicion of Sinaloa ties that many wonder how he could not have known.
Calderon has publicly backed Garcia Luna, calling him "a man of great capacity."
"Obviously, if there was any doubt about his honesty, or any evidence that would call into question his honesty, he would certainly no longer be the secretary of public safety," the president said recently.
But some see the alleged Sinaloa ties with Garcia Luna's lieutenants as an old tactic used widely under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years with a tight fist. Officials in the past preferred to deal with one strong cartel rather than many warring gangs - what Calderon faces now. More than 5,300 people died in drug-related slayings in 2008.
"I fear that Secretary Garcia Luna ... is working on the idea that once one cartel consolidates itself as the winner, that is, Sinaloa, the violence is going to drop," said organized crime expert Edgardo Buscaglia, who tracks federal police arrests and has studied law enforcement agencies' written reports.
Garcia Luna has denied being involved in corruption. He has acknowledged that authorities in the past chose the path of managing cartels. But in an interview with the newspaper El Sol, he said that approach only strengthens the gangs in the long run.
Others say the high number of Sinaloa infiltrators is a reflection of the two cartels' very different styles.
The Gulf cartel is led by military-trained hit men so violent that they reportedly planned to attack even U.S. law enforcement agencies.
"They don't necessarily try to build networks of corruption. They prefer networks of intimidation," said Monte Alejandro Rubido, who leads Mexico's multi-agency National Security System.
Sinaloa, on the other hand, appears to use bribery and infiltration at least as much as its gunmen. Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman bribed his way out of a Mexican prison in 2001, provoking suspicions the government was on his side.
Many Mexicans worry about giving so much money and power to a still corrupt force. Of more than 56,000 local and state police officers evaluated between January and October last year, fewer than half met the recommended qualifications, Calderon reported to Congress in early December. No similar numbers are available for federal police.
Agents like Granados Salero wonder who is in charge of police integrity.
"We agents find out about a lot of things," he said, "but who can we turn to?"