Clinton's Mexican narco-pals
The untold story behind February's Yucatán summit redefines the enemy
in the war on drugs
Drug Politics by Al Giordano
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: US 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 US 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 US
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 US embassy in
Santiago, Chile, from 1971 to '73, the period when the US 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 US 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
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
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 US 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
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
The story is migrating north, and there's not a border patrol that can stop
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 US and Mexican sources. The investigation and
prosecution of Villanueva -- a joint venture of the US 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
US federal court to hiding hundreds of millions of dollars for the giant
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
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 US anti-drug prosecutors, and charged that the US 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
That Menéndez continues with the investigation is no surprise.
What is new is that, for the first time, other journalists are taking on
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
"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 US 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
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
that the drug charges against Villanueva were not politically
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.
that no United States agency had pressured Mexican prosecutors to
that the Villanueva prosecution was unrelated to the fifth
anniversary of the homicide of 1994 presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio
and was not an attempt to divert public attention from that case;
that the Villanueva prosecution was not motivated by "personal
obsession by the Prosecutor General of the Republic";
that the Villanueva investigation had nothing to do with Roberto
Hernández Ramírez's legal action against Por Esto!
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 US 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
Al Giordano is a former political reporter for the Boston Phoenix.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 1999 by Al Giordano.