Clinton's Mexican Narco-Pals
The untold story behind February's Yucatan summit redefines the enemy in the war on drugs
By Al Giordano
MAY 17, 1999: If the facts of the story were made of cocaine powder, the entire White House press corps would have sneezed; the news was right under their noses. Any one of them could have written:
MÉRIDA, MEXICO, FEBRUARY 15, 1999: U.S. President William Clinton met today with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to negotiate better cooperation between their nations in the fight against drugs. Incredibly, the anti-narcotics summit was hosted by powerful Mexican banker Roberto Hernández Ramírez, a man publicly accused of trafficking cocaine and laundering illicit drug money....But that story wasn't reported in the States, despite a controversy over Hernández's alleged involvement in the drug trade that's raged on the Yucatán peninsula for two years.
The heart-shaped box appeared on Air Force One. It was Valentine's Day 1999, and the Comeback Kid was getting out of Dodge. Bill Clinton had, just two days prior, escaped vanquishment by the U.S. Senate in Washington, DC. The presidential jet roared out of the February chill toward the tropical city of Mérida.
Clinton, in a video image broadcast across the globe that evening, stepped into the press cabin of the plane wielding a big pink heart-shaped box and doled out valentine chocolates to the reporters and photographers covering this trip. And to underscore with levity that the subject would now be changed -- from impeachment and Monica to "drugs" -- the White House press handlers regaled the journalists with bottles of hemp beer. The marijuana in the brew's recipe was reportedly non-intoxicating. Still, they were high, on laughter if not impunity, on Air Force One.
Awaiting the presidential entourage in Mérida was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow. In the weeks before, while most of the White House staff was busy steering the president through domestic political crisis, Davidow had been in Mexico, laying the groundwork for the presidential visit. Davidow is no novice. He cut his diplomatic teeth at the U.S. embassy in Santiago, Chile, from 1971 to '73, the period when the U.S. and General Augusto Pinochet were plotting to destabilize the elected government of president Salvador Allende. By the time Air Force One landed in Mérida, everything on the ground was under control.
The city's central streets were deserted. Nine square blocks had been sealed by Mexican state and federal police. Hundreds of U.S. Secret Service agents had blanketed the region days in advance. They peered through their sunglasses from rooftops. Their network of cell phones fell like a web over the ancient Mayan capital. The city's annual Carnaval -- with its wild nightly parades, when seemingly every one of Mérida's 750,000 residents emerges onto the streets and dances in plumed costumes to Caribbean rhythms -- had been disappeared for the evening. The Dry Law was imposed.
Mérida on a normal day or night is an unusually tranquil city. Not even the police are armed. The response of the citizenry to the evening's invasion-of-state was to ignore the presidential summit almost completely. In the previous night's parades, throughout the city not a single banner was hung; nothing to welcome or to protest the arrival of Clinton and Zedillo. About 300 people did show up in City Square to cheer the gringos' arrival. They were supporters of Mexico's ruling political party who had received tickets to pass through the police lines, or they were folk dancers hired to provide a festive view from the second-floor dining hall where the dignitaries would nosh.
Davidow was in the first mini-bus to arrive at Mérida's City Square from the airport. Behind him came the presidents and their wives, cabinet members, congressional supporters, and the international working press. A few pool photographers and reporters would be escorted inside a historic building to snap some photos of the dignitaries and scribble reports over dinner. The rest of the journalists were herded by bus to five-star hotels to enjoy an early exemption from the Dry Law. The luxury-hotel district, too, was sealed off by police and the Secret Service.
Upstairs in the Hotel Fiesta Americana, the suites were equipped with phone and computer jacks for the visiting press. Pool reports of the diplomatic dinner and schedules of tomorrow's itinerary were ready and waiting. The two presidents would be flown by helicopter the next morning, February 15, a short distance to the Temozon Sur plantation -- the luxurious refurbished ranch owned by Roberto Hernández Ramírez, president-owner of BANAMEX (the National Bank of Mexico before Hernández bought it from the government a decade ago). Forbes magazine lists Hernández as number 289 among the wealthiest men on earth.
President Zedillo had been staying at the Hernández estate since February 12, though Hernández himself was not present at the summit meeting. That two presidents would enjoy the hospitality of a powerful businessman would not, by itself, raise many eyebrows.
But had just one of the White House correspondents holed up in the Fiesta Americana, the Hyatt, or the Holiday Inn wandered downtown or even downstairs to a newsstand, the official history of the summit might have been very different. Even a reporter who did not read Spanish might have comprehended the banner headline in the Mérida daily Por Esto!: ROBERTO HERNÁNDEZ RAMÎREZ: NARCOTRAFICANTE. (Part I, Part II, Part III.)
That same Valentine's Day, Por Esto! published the first installment of a three-part series about the banker, his rise to wealth and power, his political clout, and his alleged involvement with drugs and drug money. The series -- including 350 column-inches of text documented by 45 photographs (31 in color), plus three maps tracing the route of Colombian cocaine through the banker's properties -- ran over three consecutive days.
According to the newspaper and its sources, coastal marshlands purchased by Hernández in the late '80s and early '90s were the port of entry for massive volumes of cocaine delivered in small Colombian speedboats. From there, tons of the drug were loaded onto small planes and flown north from Hernández's private airfield. Hernández, the newspaper charged, was hiding behind empty "eco-tourism" resorts to wash drug profits.
The series was a journalistic tour de force, the culmination of a 26-month investigation into the 43 kilometers of beachfront property owned by Hernández -- a region known by the locals as the "Coca Triangle."
The newspaper went even further: it filed federal criminal complaints against Hernández for drug trafficking, for the robbery of national archeological treasures (his properties include the ancient Mayan ruins of Chac Mool and others), and for the environmental destruction caused by the cocaine-trafficking operations to the Sian Ka'an nature preserve.
Not a word about this controversy would appear in the U.S. news media before or after the Clinton-Zedillo summit. One could search the Internet, Lexis-Nexis, the major dailies, the wire services, the entire English-speaking world; the story was neither published, promoted, criticized, nor rebutted.
And yet the story has raged in Yucatán and the eastern Yucatán coastal state of Quintana Roo, where the property in question is located, since December 16, 1996, when a fishermen's cooperative blew the whistle on Hernández's cocaine port and airfield to Por Esto! and pointed the newspaper to the evidence. Por Esto! published the fishermen's accounts of threats and harassment by Hernández, who, they said, wanted to drive them off their lands to eliminate witnesses to his drug-smuggling operation. Hernández returned fire in 1997, filing charges of trespassing and defamation against reporter Renán Castro Madera, regional editor Santos Gabriel Us Aké, and editor and publisher Mario Menéndez Rodríguez. Public opinion has not favored Hernández's complaints. Since 1996, more than 100 town councils, unions, and civic organizations throughout the Yucatán Peninsula have passed resolutions supporting the newspaper in its fight to expose the man they call a narco-banker.
The story got new legs on March 28, when the powerful governor of Quintana Roo, Mario Villanueva Madrid, disappeared during his last week of office, fleeing from drug-trafficking charges. An often crude but always media-savvy politician, Villanueva has issued videotaped communiqués and even bought newspaper ads from his hidden locations claiming that the prosecution against him is an act of political vengeance. The now ex-governor of the Caribbean state that's home to the world-class Cancún tourist resorts is not going down quietly. He may drag others down with him, including Clinton's pal Roberto Hernández Ramírez.
"I have a lot of information," Villanueva told the Mexican national daily Reforma on March 23, a few days before his disappearance. "A lot. It can involve more people. In the event that this is not resolved I will make it known."
The story is migrating north, and there's not a border patrol that can stop it.
Until now, international media accounts of rampant drug-war corruption on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula have for the most part been managed and controlled by official U.S. and Mexican sources. The investigation and prosecution of Villanueva -- a joint venture of the U.S. and Mexican governments and, now, the 176 nations of the international police agency Interpol that have joined the manhunt -- was supposed to reinforce the party line that narco-corruption at the highest levels will no longer be tolerated.
But the takedown of Villanueva -- surely a crook, deeply involved in protecting the illicit drug trade and in other criminal and anti-democratic ventures -- merely diverts attention from the wheel of institutionalized corruption in which he was a cog. By profiting from drug traffic, Villanueva was simply enjoying the fruits that all governors of the ruling party have been granted for decades. The same institutions that chase him today protected him for almost six years in office. Villanueva's mysterious escape, and his promise to spill the secrets of the Mexican narco-state, have already begun to shake the comfy worlds of powerful people -- among them BANAMEX owner Hernández and his presidential houseguests.
Hernández blamed Villanueva, at the time Quintana Roo's governor, for Por Esto!'s 1996 reports about his alleged drug crimes. The banker addressed the problem the way most public-relations disasters are managed in Mexico. "Hernández complained to President Zedillo," reported the Mexico City daily El Universal on April 5, "who at his turn had spoken with Villanueva, but the attacks did not cease."
This was the first time El Universal or any national newspaper had mentioned Hernández in connection with narco-news. And even then, it was included almost as an aside in a colorful profile, by writer Mario Lara Klahr, on governor-turned-fugitive Villanueva. The spin of the profile was that the governor and Hernández were at war because Villanueva was "interested" in the bank owner's coastal properties.
That same day, El Universal, one of Mexico's two major establishment broadsheets, published an almost full-page interview with Hernández about the banking industry -- a puff piece complete with flattering photo portraits. The daily did not ask Hernández about the drug charges or, even generically, about the Mexican banking industry's current drug-money-laundering crisis -- even though, just five days before, three major Mexican banks (including BANAMEX's top competitor, Bancomer) had pled guilty in U.S. federal court to hiding hundreds of millions of dollars for the giant cocaine cartels.
Lara's piece, meanwhile, also included the unsubstantiated supposition that Villanueva was an owner of Por Esto! In fact, Villanueva's government had harassed and threatened Por Esto! repeatedly -- withholding payment for government advertising, failing to provide police response to a payroll robbery at the newspaper's Cancún offices, and excluding the paper's reporters and photographers from official functions.
Por Esto! is published by Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, a well-known and combative veteran journalist whose political activism dates back to Mexico City's 1968 student movement. Menéndez publishes dailies in both Mérida and Cancún and has been imprisoned several times for his anti-government reports.
"The governor of Quintana Roo is not an owner of Por Esto! That's ridiculous," says Menéndez. "Look at the printing machinery we use. It's always breaking. The people of this region know how I live and how this newspaper works. If El Universal has some documentation or proof that he has anything to do with this newspaper, I challenge them to show it. Of course, I am preparing a response."
(A week after the El Universal story, the national magazine Proceso reported that Hernández himself had orchestrated the leak of documents upon which Mexico's national press had based the report.)
On April 12, Por Esto! resumed publishing the results of its investigations into Hernández's affairs, vowing: "Loyal to the truth, Por Esto! will not fold in the fight. . . . The federal executive branch is the major accomplice of the drug barons in Mexico."
The accompanying story linked a BANAMEX legal-department director -- the Republic's former first assistant attorney general, who was fired, according to Por Esto!, for his illegal activities related to drug trafficking -- to three known drug traffickers, one a witness under the protection of U.S. anti-drug prosecutors, and charged that the U.S. government has "wide and deep knowledge" of Hernández's drug-trafficking activities. The newspaper also identified the state delegate of the Mexican federal prosecutor's office as a former BANAMEX employee and reported that the Mexican armed forces responsible for drug enforcement on the peninsula have received orders not to enter Hernández's coastal properties, which, according to Por Esto!, are still being used as a major cocaine-trafficking port.
That Menéndez continues with the investigation is no surprise. What is new is that, for the first time, other journalists are taking on the story.
Carlos Ramírez, editor of the feisty national political magazine La Crisis, publishes a daily column in both El Universal and Por Esto! In an April 6 column analyzing the Villanueva case, he blamed the ex-governor's fall from grace on his antagonism with Hernández, "the all-powerful owner of BANAMEX," over tourist-development sites in and around Cancún.
"Villanueva lost due to the weight of the power relations of BANAMEX," Ramírez wrote, going on to describe a strong personal and social relationship between BANAMEX's Hernández and Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, who, Ramírez reported, has vacationed at the banker's Cancún haciendas and at a Hernández-owned Caribbean island that's been linked to the late Colombian narco-trafficker Pablo Escobar Gaviria.
The April 11 edition of Proceso, the most respected newsweekly in Mexico, ended the Mexican national media's long reluctance to repeat Por Esto!'s drug-trafficking charges against Hernández. Under the headline WITH THE FLIGHT OF VILLANUEVA, ROBERTO HERNANDEZ ESCAPES AN ENEMY, Proceso recounted a private September 1998 meeting between then-governor Villanueva and journalists during which Villanueva confided, "Behind this smear campaign that has been unleashed against me I see the hand of Roberto Hernández." The piece went on to describe Por Esto!'s campaign to portray Hernández as a drug trafficker, relaying the paper's reports that almost 30 percent of the nearly 30 tons of cocaine intercepted by the Mexican prosecutor general's agents had been seized on property owned by the BANAMEX chief. It noted Hernández's 1997 suits against the paper and reported that, the previous week, Quintana Roo judge Marco Antonio Traconis Varguez had issued arrest warrants against three of the paper's journalists.
The gamble taken by the White House and the U.S. Embassy in Mexico -- that the drug story on Clinton's host would never get out -- has already been lost.
Jorge Madrazo Cuéllar, Prosecutor General of the Republic -- Mexico's equivalent of the attorney general -- is understandably nervous about Villanueva's escape and its mounting consequences for his own job. Opposition leaders have already called Madrazo before the federal House of Deputies to answer charges that he intentionally let Villanueva slip away. (At that meeting, Madrazo divulged that many of his former prosecutors and officers have gone to work as cocaine traffickers -- an admission by the chief federal prosecutor that his office has functioned as a narco-school.)
The defendant ex-governor remains at large -- and looms large -- buying full-page ads in national dailies and issuing video communiqués that may soon begin to implicate his nemesis Hernández directly in the narco-trade.
And so in a bizarre act of prosecution-by-publicity, the prosecutor general is defending his behavior by taking out ads of his own.
The opening advertisement for the prosecution, published on April 9 in all of Mexico's major national newspapers, enumerated five major denials that were surreal in their capacity to suggest the opposite of their intent. The ad stated:
All of the above are plausible in their inverse; the case could be motivated by a confluence of political factors. If we heed the journalistic principle "follow the money," the weightiest of them -- reaching to the White House in Washington -- involves presidential pal Hernández and his vast power as the BANAMEX owner.
Por Esto! reported the story, and the result was that three of its journalists are today being persecuted with live arrest warrants. But the escape of Governor Villanueva has forced Mexico's national press to accept that there is indeed a story here. Whether U.S. media organizations that cover Mexico will do their job remains to be seen. But when Bill Clinton agreed to hold his anti-drug summit with the Mexican president on Hernández's plantation, he inadvertently invited their scrutiny. The invitation came with the heart-shaped box.
Copyright © 1999 by Al Giordano
Al Giordano is a former political reporter for the Boston Phoenix. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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