Tuesday, April 25, 2006

NOGALES, Ariz. — Hundreds of Mexican nationals who wear government-issued uniforms, carry official identification cards and are authorized to use weapons are helping smugglers move tons of drugs into the United States, U.S. law-enforcement officials say.

Known as “madrinas,” from the Spanish word for “godmothers,” they negotiate bribes for corrupt Mexican government officials from drug cartels and are suspected in numerous confirmed incursions into the U.S. by heavily armed men escorting smugglers of cocaine, marijuana and heroin.

“Madrinas are unaccountable middlemen who can negotiate with the drug cartels on behalf of whoever has appointed them and wants his or her government agency to thrive under this practice,” El Paso County, Texas, Sheriff Leo Samaniego told a House committee last month.

“If a complication arises, they are expendable, because the Mexican government officially doesn’t recognize them, but turning a blind eye allows this practice to exist.”

The madrinas, who are not on the government payroll, are paid through a bribe system known as the “mordida,” a slang use of the word for “bite,” which usually involves a percentage of the street value of the drugs they help transport. The madrinas then kick back a percentage of what they collect to those who issued the Mexican identification cards, the officials said.

Several U.S. law-enforcement officials told The Washington Times that some of the suspected leaders of the country’s largest drug-smuggling organizations — the Juarez, Tijuana and Gulf cartels — were former agents of the Mexican federal judicial police.

Several U.S. officials, including local sheriffs and federal agents from both Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, described the workings of the “madrinas,” but only on the condition of anonymity.

The cartels employ many of the madrinas, some of whom formerly worked as Mexican police officers, to protect their illicit cargoes into the United States. Some Madrinas are thought to be confidential informants for the federal police.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Sheriff Samaniego said Mexican and U.S. government officials have “turned a blind eye” to the practice.

“The madrinas are a reality I’ve seen through my own eyes as a law-enforcement professional along the border for almost 50 years,” he said. “I know they exist because of my own experience as a street cop. I have narcotics officers telling me that the practice and traditions of the madrinas is still alive.”

Law-enforcement officials said they suspect the madrinas were involved in incursions into the U.S. by heavily armed men dressed in uniforms and driving military-style vehicles while escorting drug smugglers. More than 200 such incursions have been documented since 1996 in California, Arizona and Texas, according to a Department of Homeland Security report.

The officials also suspect they are playing a role in rising violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in border towns where cartels have been accused of killing law-enforcement officials.

Rafael Laveaga, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, has vigorously denied that Mexican military personnel have been involved.

According to the U.S. officials, the use of madrinas to facilitate drug smugglers gives corrupt Mexican government officials an “easy escape” if they are caught since there are no records to tie them to the government. They said that in serious accusations of suspected corruption or malfeasance, the madrinas sometimes have been killed and their bodies displayed as those responsible for the criminal activity.

Last month, a World Policy Institute report said that because the madrinas do not act in an official capacity, “they can be used to circumvent the law.”

“The judicial police use them to do their dirty work, then deny any responsibility,” the report said, adding that they “are often paid out of the proceeds of drug busts, or with protection money supplied by drug traffickers and other criminals.”

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