Web Posted: 03/17/2004 12:41 AM
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
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
"(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
Cordero has denied the allegations. He has been denied
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
"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
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
A businessman from San Luis Potosí 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
Cordero spent 15 months in jail following a conviction
He was released after the conviction was dismissed on
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
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 Juárez 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."