March 17, 2004 - The San Antonio Express-News (TX)

Mexico Narcotics Whistleblower Jailed In Drug-Money Plot

By Guillermo Contreras

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Eight years ago, a former high-ranking Mexican anti-narcotics agent charged his government's top crime-fighting organization was so corrupt that fellow officers served as bodyguards for huge drug shipments across the U.S. border.

The allegations sent shockwaves through U.S. lawmakers, who at the time were debating whether to send Mexico millions of dollars to fight cocaine and marijuana smuggling.

A frustrated Ricardo Cordero Ontiveros said bribery was so embedded that he left his post as head of a special drug intelligence unit in Tijuana.

Arrested a day after he agreed to testify before the U.S. Congress about the corruption, Cordero was charged by Mexican authorities with blackmail, but he eventually was acquitted.

"(Cordero) was an important whistleblower," said Eduardo Valle, a special assistant to two former Mexican attorneys general and a political columnist in one of Mexico's largest newspapers, El Universal. "He said some important things, but then they jailed him, he won his freedom and then he disappeared."

Today, the wealthy businessman has resurfaced, snared in a criminal web similar to the one he described years ago.

This time, the same U.S. anti-drug agency that some sources say helped fund Cordero's Mexican counter-drug unit is accusing him of profiting from illicit narcotics.

Cordero, 43, is in a San Antonio jail, facing charges he helped launder at least $12 million for a cocaine-trafficking organization in New York and New Jersey by ordering that bulk amounts of money be shipped to Mexico via Texas and Arizona.

The U.S. government claims it not only has accounts from informants about Cordero's alleged activity, but also from an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent who said he witnessed Cordero offer to move drug money.

A federal grand jury in San Antonio indicted Cordero on four charges, including conspiracy to launder money and aiding and abetting.

His brother and another man also have been cited in the charges.

Cordero has denied the allegations. He has been denied bond.

His brother, Jose Javier Cordero Ontiveros, 44, hasn't been arrested and is believed to be in Mexico.

The third defendant, Francisco Javier Romero, 37, of Glendale, Ariz., is serving a 31-year prison sentence in Arizona for an unrelated vehicular manslaughter case, but is in federal custody in Texas awaiting trial on the money laundering case.

"What we all have to figure out is what's the bottom line here," Ricardo Cordero's attorney, Cynthia Orr, said. "Do we have some folks who are angry with Mr. (Cordero) claiming that he did illegal things to take him out because of his unpopular position in the past, or does he have a problem? It's our position that he's not guilty of these charges."

Noted Valle, the former Mexican official, "if the case is rooted on informants, then it's a weak case.

"However, if there's evidence of money moving through banks, or large amounts of money (seized), then that's another story."

Corruption charges

In the mid-1990s, Cordero gained international fame by accusing his own government's police forces of corruption, saying the attorney general's office "is controlled by the drug dealers."

A businessman from San Luis Potosi in central Mexico with no police experience, Cordero was hired to work in the Mexican Attorney General's National Institute to Combat Drugs from May to November 1995.

Cordero's last four months on the job were as head of a special 17-member intelligence unit in Tijuana that, according to the Washington Post, was partially bankrolled by the DEA.

The unit was established to investigate one of Mexico's main drug gangs, the Arellano Felix organization in Tijuana.

But instead of working with a force of good cops, Cordero told reporters in a news conference that his crew spent most of the time watching television and drinking beer.

Yet Cordero said that problem was minute compared with the rampant collusion he witnessed between drug traffickers, police and government officials.

He recounted stakeouts for drug deliveries that he wanted to bust, only to find Mexican federal and local police serving as bodyguards.

When he reported his complaints to superiors, he was told to leave the traffickers and cops alone.

Finally, Cordero said, he resigned and went public, labeling Mexico's anti-drug effort "a joke."

He was arrested, accused of the same illicit activity he denounced - a move that made Cordero something of a cause celebre among politicians. Some U.S. lawmakers considered his arrest retaliation because his allegations were significant, preceding the arrests of other law enforcers, including Mexico's own drug czar a year later.

"It gives the impression that instead of investigating his allegations, that the messenger, in fact, has been punished," U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the head of the Senate's Anti-Narcotics Caucus, said on the Senate floor Aug. 2, 1996. "If this is the case, then it raises further doubts about the ability of Mexico to take serious steps to end corruption and to deal with the problems posed by drug trafficking."

Officials said at the time that they were investigating Cordero before he began giving interviews and alleged he had started speaking out because he knew he was under investigation.

Cordero spent 15 months in jail following a conviction for corruption.

He was released after the conviction was dismissed on appeal.

Growing questions

Since Cordero left the spotlight, he has seen a growing amount of police scrutiny here.

Court records that have been unsealed since Cordero's arrest show federal agents have taken aim at his business dealings in the United States.

He owns a company called Tampico Fiber and two marble mines in Mexico, worth a total of $3.5 to $4.5 million.

Cordero also said he owned an import store, Pueblo Bonito Furniture behind North Star Mall in San Antonio, but the business closed within the past month.

He also reported an income of $35,000 to $40,000 a month.

But his biggest asset, according to federal court documents and officials, was drug profits coming from New York and New Jersey that would be driven to Mexico, sometimes after stops in San Antonio.

According to the court file, local police and federal investigators found or seized nearly $4.5 million that moved across the Eastern United States in less than a year.

In early 2003, the affidavit states, an undercover DEA agent posing as a drug trafficker met Cordero through an informant.

In the meetings in San Antonio, the affidavit said, Cordero offered to transport bulk drug money for the agent from the United States to Mexico.

While the courts will have to judge if Cordero moved from drug fighter to drug war profiteer, observers say such moves were not unusual a decade ago.

Cordero's path appears to be similar to other crime fighters, such as Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, Mexico's former drug czar.

Eight months after Cordero went public with his allegations, Rebollo was arrested on charges that he aided the Juarez drug cartel led by Amado Carrillo Fuentes.

"Drug warriors can also be corrupt, as most dramatically evident when Mexico's drug czar general was going after one trafficking group and colluding with another," said professor Peter Andreas, who heads the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. "There is also a pattern of unemployed former Mexican police 'retiring' into the business of organized crime."

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