- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

MEXICO CITY

A ruling-party mayoral candidate in Mexico’s richest city told his supporters that drug traffickers have contacted all leading political contenders in the country seeking their loyalty ahead of elections next month. Mauricio Fernandez’s discussion with a group of supporters in a suburb of Monterrey - now public because of a leaked recording - is a remarkably frank description of how the brutal gangs try to control political leaders, which is a key concern of President Felipe Calderon in his fight against drug cartels.

The candidate also acknowledged that the Beltran Levya cartel controls drug smuggling in his city of San Pedro Garza and suggested that as mayor he would avoid confronting the gang to maintain peace, comments that undermined Mr. Calderon’s drive to show that the government and his National Action Party, or PAN, are tough on organized crime.

Mr. Fernandez’s campaign was thrown into turmoil when the recording was aired on national television Friday, but he stood by the comments, saying he was merely telling the truth. He denied meeting with any traffickers during this campaign and said he rejected efforts by gangsters to buy his loyalty when he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Nuevo Leon state six years ago.

“I am stating the reality that my city is living,” Mr. Fernandez told MVS Radio. “I don’t have any reason to hide it.”

PAN had no immediate comment on the recording, nor was it clear how the government would react.

Mr. Calderon has acknowledged that corrupt police and elected officials are a major obstacle in his fight with organized crime. Federal forces last month arrested 10 mayors in the president’s home state of Michoacan for suspected drug-gang ties. Mr. Calderon has held up the arrests as a demonstration that no politicians are immune to prosecution: Two of the mayors belong to the PAN, and a third is from a coalition including it.

The fear that cartels will buy off politicians is a constant theme as Mexicans prepare to vote July 5 for 500 congressional seats, six governors and 565 mayors nationwide.

Mr. Fernandez addressed that issue with his supporters.

“Drug trafficking is really endemic, and they come in contact with all candidates, at least those who have a chance of winning,” he sayse.

The leaked audiotape lays bare what few politicians have been willing to address publicly. Even Mr. Fernandez at one point pauses in his discussion, saying: “There are no journalists here, right?”

Mr. Fernandez then tells why his wealthy suburb is relatively peaceful, while killings have been much more frequent elsewhere in the Monterrey region: The Beltran Leyva cartel has undisputed control of San Pedro Garza Garcia, unlike other areas where gangs weakened by the federal crackdown are engaged in bloody turf battles with rivals.

“Look, this is a scary thing, what I’m going to tell you,” Mr. Fernandez says. “A lot of San Pedro is peaceful compared to how the metropolitan area is starting to deteriorate. It’s because here, the Beltran Leyva are in control.”

If elected, Mr. Fernandez implies he has no intention of challenging that control as long as the gang refrains from open drug dealing.

“They give a lot of importance to living in peace, that’s what I understand,” he says. “So that has to be seized upon - that they give a lot of importance to living in peace - and that they say: ‘Well, OK, I will not sell or I’m not going to sell [here].’ As long as the government doesn’t confront them, they accept you.”

Four top members of the Beltran Leyva cartel are on Mexico’s most-wanted list, eluding capture for years despite the government’s offer of more than $2 million each for information leading to their arrest.

On the tape, Mr. Fernandez says he knows that the cartel’s top leader lived in his suburb for seven years and that several relatives still live in town today - “discreetly and hiding their identity, but they live here, make no doubt about it.”

The Mexican government has sent more than 45,000 soldiers to drug hot spots to confront the violence that has killed at least 10,800 people since 2006. Officials attribute much of the violence to turf wars between cartels.

On Friday, police found the bodies of five men dumped beside a highway in the sparsely populated northern state of Durango, all with signs of being tortured. Four more bodies were found in different parts of Ciudad Juarez, a city across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Mexico’s navy, meanwhile, announced the discovery of a large methamphetamine lab in the northern state of Sinaloa. The navy said about 13,200 gallons of liquid ephedrine - one of the precursor chemicals for meth - amounted to a record find for Mexico.

Mexican officials say they dealt a blow to the meth trade when they banned the import of precursor chemicals, but U.S. and Central American officials say drug cartels are getting around the ban, buying such materials in other Latin American countries and smuggling them into Mexico.

In the taped conversation, at least, Mr. Fernandez suggests the federal government should pick other battles rather than come to his town. Even the cartel is on board with his campaign’s plans to use local police to make the suburb safe, he says.

Mr. Fernandez adds that he doesn’t consider the Beltran Leyva cartel members as bad as other Mexican criminals, saying that “they don’t kidnap and do all those things.”

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