- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

MEXICO CITY | Mexico accused its former drug czar Friday of taking $450,000 from a cartel he was supposed to destroy, going public with a scandal that deals a serious blow to the country’s U.S.-backed drug war.

Noe Ramirez is the highest-ranking law enforcement official detained yet as part of Mexico’s sweeping effort to weed out officials who purportedly shared police information with violent drug smugglers. The corruption scandal is the biggest to rock the Mexican government in more than decade.

Although the arrest complicates President Felipe Calderon’s nationwide crackdown on the drug trade, Attorney General Eduardo Medina said it also proved the government’s commitment to rooting out corruption.

That commitment could be key to ensuring continued U.S. support for its drug fight. The U.S. Congress conditioned 15 percent of a still-to-be-released $400 million aid package on Mexico’s efforts to clean up its police force.

U.S. investigators work closely with their Mexican counterparts, sharing information with those who have been closely vetted. The Drug Enforcement Administration hasn’t said whether it plans to pull back cooperation, given the questions surrounding whom to trust.

For many in Mexico, the government’s very public admission of the problem was more surprising than the allegations. Friday’s news conference provided a rare glimpse into details of how cartels purportedly bought off top officials.

Mr. Medina said Mr. Ramirez accepted $450,000 from a member of the Pacific cartel, who offered to pay him similar amounts each month for alerting the drug gang to planned police operations. It was not clear whether the subsequent payments were ever made. The cartel member is now cooperating with investigators, Mr. Medina said.

Mr. Ramirez was named assistant attorney general for organized crime in 2006 when Mr. Calderon took office, and he resigned in July at Mr. Medina’s request. No corruption allegations were raised at the time - federal officials said his resignation was part of a law enforcement shake-up by the Calderon administration.

Mr. Ramirez was helping to lead Mr. Calderon’s nationwide offensive to take back territory controlled by drug cartels, a two-year campaign involving the deployment of more than 25,000 army troops and federal police.

Mr. Calderon has long acknowledged that corruption is an obstacle for his offensive, which has resulted in several kingpin arrests but failed to contain rising violence that includes drug gangs decapitating their rivals and staging daylight attacks on police and soldiers.

With the arrest of Mr. Ramirez, at least five top officials and two federal agents have been detained this year as part of “Operation Clean House,” which targets officials who reportedly shared information with the Pacific cartel, an alliance headed by the Sinaloa drug gang.

The scandal is the most serious since the 1997 arrest of Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, who led Mexico’s anti-drug agency and was later convicted of aiding a top drug lord.

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