Accused money launderer slips Mexican police Escape was kept secret until U.S. certification of anti-drug efforts


MEXICO CITY -- A man accused of being the top money launderer for one of Mexico's major drug trafficking cartels escaped "inexplicably" from police custody last week, Mexican officials said, but authorities failed to disclose the incident until hours after President Clinton had certified Mexico as a full ally in the war on drugs.

Humberto Garcia Abrego, brother of Juan Garcia Abrego, a convicted cocaine trafficker imprisoned in the United States, slipped away from police officers assigned to guard him during questioning at government offices in downtown Mexico City Wednesday or Thursday, the Mexican attorney general's office said.

But the office withheld announcement of Humberto Garcia Abrego's escape until Friday at about 11 p.m., several hours after Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright announced the Clinton administration's full certification of Mexico's anti-drug efforts.

"Inexplicably, the official in charge of the investigation informed his superiors that Humberto Garcia Abrego had gone from the National Institute for Combating Drugs," before the questioning was completed, the attorney general's office said in a confused statement sent to news organizations announcing Garcia Abrego's escape.

The incident is the second during the intense two-week lobbying campaign that preceded Friday's certification decision in which Mexican officials withheld disclosure of an embarrassing development, even as Clinton administration officials were lauding them for their sincerity and wholehearted cooperation.

After the arrest Feb. 6 of Mexico's top anti-narcotics official, Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, on charges of collaborating with the country's top trafficker, Mexican officials kept his detention secret for 12 days. They announced it only after newspapers reported that anti-narcotics troops had searched several of the general's homes.

Humberto Garcia Abrego, the younger brother of the trafficker ,, who controlled the narcotics organization that dominated northeastern Mexico and southern Texas, known as the Gulf Cartel, was arrested in July, accused of overseeing the cartel's billion-dollar money-laundering operations.

He spent six months in a federal prison in Mexico City, a spell pTC interrupted briefly in September when his lawyers persuaded a rural judge to order his release. That order was immediately overturned when prosecutors obtained his rearrest.

A similar scenario played itself out starting late Tuesday, when another rural judge from the northeastern state of Tamaulipas again ordered Humberto Garcia Abrego's release from Mexico's Northern Penitentiary on the basis of a constitutional appeal, according to the attorney general's statement.

Mexican anti-drug officers immediately rearrested him, but a judicial order required them to come up with new criminal charges within 48 hours or release him, the statement said. He was taken to the offices of the National Institute for Combating Drugs for questioning. At some undisclosed time later, Humberto Garcia Abrego escaped from the site.

The two drug agents who were questioning him have been put under house arrest, the government's statement said.

The officials "disobeyed clear orders from their superiors" to interrogate Humberto Garcia Abrego and to prepare new criminal charges against him, the statement said. It pledged to "investigate and sanction any improper conduct by public servants with all the rigor of the law."

The National Institute for Combatting Drugs was set up with U.S. assistance in 1993 and was modeled on the Drug Enforcement " Administration, a U.S. agency. Gutierrez Rebollo was the institute's director during the two months before his arrest.

U.S. officials hoped that the institute's agents would prove less corrupt than those of the other anti-drug forces. But since Gutierrez Rebollo's detention, U.S. officials have acknowledged that the institute has been thoroughly compromised by traffickers, who by one U.S. estimate spend $6 billion annually to bribe officials.

Humberto Garcia Abrego has never been accused of active participation in drug smuggling; he is accused of overseeing his brother's efforts to channel drug profits into real estate and legitimate businesses, according to Mexican prosecutors and a FBI report on the Gulf Cartel.

"Humberto has no direct connections to the Juan Garcia Abrego drug operations, but is fully aware of all the aspects of them, including the landings of drug-laden airplanes," the report says. "Humberto kept this separation so that if Juan Garcia Abrego ever got arrested, Humberto would be in charge of the businesses and they wouldn't be lost."

Humberto Garcia Abrego's escape appears to have come at about the same time that Mexican officials said they arrested another reputed top operator of the Gulf Cartel, Oscar Malherbe, on Wednesday at a Mexico City shopping center. Law enforcement officials in Mexico and the United States had been seeking Malherbe.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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