A30: LA TIMES on Labastida's Narco State

Excelsior of Mexico City reprints story while censoring all of its reports on Labastida's alleged narco-complicity

(analysis of Excelsior's "image laundering" below with a note on the English-language daily The News in Mexico)

LA TIMES article confirms facts of April 18th Narco News story

Mary Beth Sheridan conducts 24 interviews on ruling party candidate

Labastida "less than heroic crusader" as Sinaloa governor

"There was a war between bands of drug traffickers. The state government openly combated one group"

Castañeda: "Society is not clamoring for a war."

The Sunday Los Angeles Times, on April 30th, reported on Mexican presidential candidate Francisco Labastida (of the ruling PRI party) and his history with drug traffickers in his home state of Sinaloa.

The story could reach as far as the White House: Clinton campaign consultants Jim Carville and pollster Stanley Greenberg are advising candidate Labastida at a time when some US Senators have begun to complain of "narco-lobbyists" in Washington.

The LA Times story speaks well for itself. The entire text can be read at the web site of the most-read newspaper in the United States; click here (copyright 2000 The Los Angeles Times)

Here are a few choice excerpts, with added analysis from The Narco News Bulletin:

"PRI Candidate's Drug Stance Stirs Doubts"

"Mexico: Labastida denies deals with traffickers. Some question ex-governor's vow for 'all-out' war on narcotics"

By MARY BETH SHERIDAN, Times Staff Writer

"....controversy swirls around Labastida's anti-narcotics actions. Opposition politicians have made drugs a major issue, accusing the candidate and his long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party of having gone easy on traffickers.

Labastida angrily denies such accusations. And indeed, there appears to be no solid evidence that he made deals with narcotics groups. Still, interviews with nearly two dozen politicians, analysts and U.S. and Mexican officials, along with a study of newspaper archives, suggest that Labastida was less than the heroic crusader he has portrayed in his ads.

For American authorities, who blame Mexican traffickers for 70% of the illegal drugs smuggled into the United States, Labastida's experience is of keen interest. Would it inspire him, if elected, to go after narcotics gangs?

The candidate says it would. But others believe that Labastida's experience illustrates why it has been so difficult for Mexican authorities to make progress against drug cartels.

"I don't think any Mexican president is crazy enough to declare an all-out war on drugs. What are the costs? What are the benefits? Add all that up," said Jorge Castañeda, a political scientist who advises one of Labastida's rivals. "Society is not clamoring for a war."

Narco News commentary: The LA Times story is, to date, the most in-depth report by a major US daily newspaper on the ruling party presidential candidate in Mexico and his claims to be a solid drug warrior. The paper's Mexico City bureau chief Sheridan deserves credit for exploring Labastida's history as governor of Sinaloa (see Labastida: Inventor of the Modern Narco-State?, The Narco News Bulletin, April 18, 2000).

The point by Jorge Castañeda, that Mexican "society is not clamoring for war" is a very important lens through which to view Washington-fed illusions that winning the drug war is possible (see the Narco News analysis of Mexico in our opening statement).

Just look at what Labastida did when he felt truly threatened by the narco: he ran away! So confirms the Los Angeles Times:

"Mexican intelligence agencies had learned of a plot to kill Labastida, who had just left office. And his wife, Maria Teresa Uriarte, was offering a chilling hint of that threat: A mysterious man had snapped pictures of her in an outdoor market and then fled.

For Labastida, it was the last straw. "He said to me, 'I can live with a threat to my life. I can't live with a threat to yours. We're leaving Mexico,' " his wife says, recalling that moment in 1993. Labastida took a job as ambassador to Portugal, his political career stalling.

Narco News commentary: Does this suggest that, if elected president of Mexico, Labastida would, at the first real threat, flee abroad again?

First, a careful analysis of the claims by Labastida of threats to his life reveals:

1. The source that Labastida cites, then Attorney General of Mexico, Jorge Carpizo, now a key Labastida campaign operative, has himself been linked to narco-corruption.

2. Labastida and Carpizo, in the LA Times article, offer conflicting stories on which cartel made the supposed threat.

3. More often than not, the drug cartels threaten or kill public officials who take sides in disputes between rival gangs. In the LA Times report even Labastida and his then-top prosecutor acknowledge this phenomenon in speaking of corrupt police officials.

From the LA Times:

"On April 9, 1989, as Labastida was away on a scuba-diving holiday, the army swept into the state capital, Culiacan. The soldiers detained the entire municipal police force for questioning and arrested local and state police chiefs appointed by Labastida. The charge: protecting Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, at the time Mexico's top drug lord, who had just been captured in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state.

A chagrined Labastida began another purge of the state police. However, the case took an unexpected turn when a federal court freed his police commanders for lack of evidence, say former state officials.

Labastida came to suspect that his chiefs had been set up. "It was to distract attention" from other officials who had been protecting Felix Gallardo, he said in the interview.

That was the first of a series of clashes with federal authorities. Labastida ultimately came to believe that he was not only confronting traffickers but also their protectors in the federal government.

"In reality, the federal police commanders at the time were protecting a strong group of narcos, led by [Hector Luis] 'El Guero' Palma," said Manuel Lazcano Ochoa, Labastida's first prosecutor. "They were bothered by anything the state government did that could expose this situation."

Narco News Commentary: The underlining dynamic to the saga of Sinaloa drug trafficking during Labastida's term (indeed all drug trafficking everywhere) was that state and federal governmental agencies were choosing sides between trafficking gangs -- this, and not impartial law enforcement, is what leads to so much prohibition-related violence.

A critic of Labastida's model narco-state is quoted in the LA Times:

"Drug traffickers have more power than any governor here," said Gregorio Urias, the former head of the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, in Sinaloa.

He agreed that Labastida's state police fought Palma, but he alleged that it was not out of duty. Rather, he charged, they were allied with a rival trafficking group loyal to Felix Gallardo.
"There was a war between bands of drug traffickers. The state government openly combated one group," said Urias, who works in the campaign of one of Labastida's rivals, PRD candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.

And another expert notes, for the LA Times, that Labastida likely had behind-the-scenes contact with drug traffickers:

"You can't imagine the governor of a big drug-producing or trafficking state who doesn't have mediators" to deal with them, said Luis Astorga, a sociologist and Sinaloa native who studies drug trafficking.

Which brings the story inexorably to Washington's bizarre position on Labastida, one of the two Mexican presidential candidates, along with Vicente Fox, who are acceptable to Washington because they tow the line on US economic policy. The LA Times reports:

"In interviews, half a dozen current and former U.S. officials agreed that the American government has no conclusive evidence linking Labastida to drug traffickers. But the officials' responses about the candidate's record ranged from complimentary to wary.

U.S. anti-drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, the only one to speak on the record, said officials had begun to focus on Labastida when the candidate oversaw domestic security as interior minister in 1998 and '99.

"He came up [to Washington]; we had to agonize over what we thought about him. We concluded he was working to keep drugs out of Mexico," McCaffrey told foreign correspondents in Mexico earlier this year.

Another U.S. official with access to intelligence information was less sanguine. "We don't have strong stuff on him. It could go either way. You can't form a definite opinion," said the official, who requested anonymity.

Labastida's anti-drug record has been a source of controversy before. In 1998, the Washington Times quoted a secret CIA document as saying that Labastida had "long-standing ties" to drug dealers, dating to his governorship.

The document reportedly added: "Labastida has denied receiving payoffs but has acknowledged privately that he had to reach unspecified agreements with traffickers and turn a blind eye to some of their activities."

Mexico furiously demanded a response from U.S. authorities, who did not comment directly on their intelligence information. But the State Department said in a private diplomatic note that it had "no reason to modify" its cooperation with Labastida, according to Mexico's Foreign Ministry.

Narco News found only two errant facts to correct in Sheridan's story.

The LA Times reports:

The state was especially chaotic as Labastida prepared to take over as governor in 1987. Gun-toting goons roamed the streets, contributing to a homicide rate of nearly five deaths per day. U.S. officials accused his predecessor, Antonio Toledo Corro, of entertaining drug lords at a ranch, a charge the ex-governor denied.

The fact is that Labastida was imposed as governor by an electoral fraud engineered precisely by his predecessor Toledo Corro (the opposition candidate, Manuel Clouthier, lost his life, under Labastida's watch, in a suspicious car accident in Sinaloa).

The LA Times also reports:

The number of killings had declined 50% from the previous administration, but it remained among the highest in Mexico.

This is in error: In both Labastida's term and that of his predecessor, slightly over 3,000 drug prohibition-related homicides occured in the state of Sinaloa (source: Proceso magazine).

Narco News commentary: Mary Beth Sheridan's article ought to be a lesson to other Mexico bureau chiefs for US newspapers. Indeed, last week Labastida met with them as a group. Sheridan was the only reporter among them to investigate the stories behind the hype, and the picture of what she calls Labastida's "narco-nightmare" is not pretty. But it is more true than what other US dailies have reported.

The saga of Labastida as governor of Sinaloa -- the place and time (1986-1992) precisely when Sinaloa natives Amado Carrillo ("The Lord of the Skies"), the Arrellano-Félix brothers, and other top cartel bosses surged to power -- tells as much about United States policy as it does about Mexico's. All is revealed in the history of this Pacific Ocean state. The US government is not serious in combatting drugs. For this, the US drug czar embraces Labastida, as he has other narco-politicians.

Excelsior Tampers with LA Times Story

How did the Labastida campaign deal with this story? The pro-PRI daily in Mexico City, Excelsior, also on April 30th, "reprinted" the LA Times story in Spanish -- while removing a dozen key paragraphs from the story, including many of the above excerpts -- and retitled it "Labastida Confronts the Ire and Threats of Narco-Traffickers". ¡Que Morro! They turned a good investigative story that exposed blemishes in Labastida's propaganda into... a campaign ad for Labastida!

This Just In: "The News" Also Distorts the Story

Not to be outdone in cynical simulation, The News, that English-language daily for tourists in Mexico, also ran a butchered version of the LA Times story, and promoted it on page one under the headline "Labastida Risked His Life In Taking on Drug Cartels." (That part of the story, repeating claims that Labastida has voiced throughout the campaign, used three sources; Labastida, his wife and the above mentioned Jorge Carpizo; it's been published many times. But the other more meaty paragraphs, above, represent the new ground broken by the LA Times story.)

The News of Mexico City wrote in its page one promo of their censored version of the LA Times story:

"Ruling party presidential candidate Francisco Labastida did not set out to fight drugs. But when he ran for governor of Sinaloa in 1986 pledging law-and-order, he took on the cartels. His efforts at one time imperiled his life, a fact that would tend to rebut those who say he could have done more."

The story inside the English-language News -- a paper that, for its one-sided coverage of the powerful, is considered by many of the 350,000 gringos living in Mexico as the best motivation to learn Spanish -- was only slightly less distorted than Excelsior's cut-and-paste job; both dishonored the letter and spirit of the LA Times story. They used a good story that raised questions about Labastida and the narco to imply, unfairly, opposite conclusions. The News, needless to say, did not post their version on the internet, where English-language readers would then be able to compare it to the original. (More on The News in a future edition of The Narco News Bulletin.)

This is typical of what the media in both countries do with press reports from the other. No wonder the public is so badly informed.

This is exactly why The Narco News Bulletin was born: to defeat the information blockade on both sides of the border.

We encourage you to read the full LA Times story (copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times): click here.

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