The key to the unraveling political scandals in Mexico may be a wealthy McAllen man who’s not talking—yet.
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SO FAR, 1997 HAS BEEN AN extraordinary year for outing Mexico’s narco-political secrets. The first six months have seen the head of the country’s anti-drug efforts arrested for taking money from drug cartels, a Mexican governor fingered as an employee of the same cartels, and a Houston jury rule that $8 million of a former Mexican deputy attorney general’s money was “drug proceeds.” But the most extraordinary may be yet to come: Swiss prosecutors say they have evidence that $120 million in Swiss bank accounts belonging to Raúl Salinas de Gortari—the big brother of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari—came from drug dealers, and law enforcement officials in the United States allege that Raúl is the focus of ongoing money-laundering investigations in South Texas, New York, and San Diego.
Though the pieces of this corrupt puzzle are coming together, it will not be complete without the testimony of the man who knows where all the bodies are buried, a reticent 49-year-old who whiles away his days in a cushy gated community in McAllen. He is Guillermo González Calderoni, and until he fled to the U.S. in February 1993, he was the most powerful commander in the Mexican Federal Judicial Police (MFJP), Mexico’s equivalent of the FBI. The Comandante, as he is known, remains a legendary figure in law enforcement circles. It was he who hunted down the original members of the Mexican Federation, the alliance of drug rings responsible for transporting most of the cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine that ends up on U.S. streets. “He was one of the untouchables,” recalls Phil Jordan, who once ran the El Paso Intelligence Center for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). “We used to fly him to Arizona, then stage our raids into Mexico under his leadership.” And, of course, as the head of the MFJP, it was Calderoni who played the role of dirty trickster, setting up the Salinas administration’s political opponents, fixing cases, and eavesdropping. “He was a cop,” explains his Corpus Christi lawyer, Tony Canales. “They told him to tap phones, so he tapped phones.”
But if Calderoni was part Eliot Ness and part Gordon Liddy, he was also part Aldrich Ames. Born in Reynosa, he grew up with José García Abrego, the younger brother of Juan García Abrego, the head of the Gulf cartel. Thus, Comandante Calderoni enjoyed entrée into the highest levels of not only the government but also the drug trade. “He is like a brother to me,” Juan told an undercover FBI agent during a surreptitiously taped conversation. And not just to him: U.S. intelligence officials say that while Calderoni was vigorously pursuing some of Mexico’s drug lords, he was protecting others. DEA reports allege that in 1987 Amado Carillo Fuentes, the current Federation patrón, paid Calderoni $1 million to assassinate rival drug lord Pablo Acosta Villareal. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in San Diego claim that Calderoni received another $1 million or so from Joaquín “El Rápido” Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, in exchange for his help getting El Rápido’s brother, Arturo, released from a Mexican prison.
Yet Calderoni was never charged in connection with either case, for his drug world ties (not to mention his knack for seeming loyal to cops and crooks alike) made him extremely useful to both Mexico and the U.S. In 1991 he was named head of the MFJP’s new San Antonio office, formalizing his role as a liaison between the two nations—even as he was apparently serving as Carlos Salinas’ message carrier to and from the drug cartels. He was the one, for instance, who was sent to try to negotiate Juan García Abrego’s surrender. But the talks foundered when García Abrego reminded Calderoni of the favors he’d done for the Salinas administration. Last fall Calderoni told several newspapers, including the New York Times, that those favors included illegal payoffs and even murder. In interviews with the FBI as well as the Mexican newspaper La Hornada, Calderoni said that García Abrego claimed to have carried out the 1988 slaying of Francisco Xavier Ovando Hernández, the top aide to Salinas’ political opponent, at the request of officials of Salinas’ political party, the PRI. (Carlos Salinas has denied any knowledge of García Abrego’s claims.) All the while—according to internal DEA memos, the recollections of Calderoni’s contacts, and Calderoni himself—the Comandante kept U.S. law enforcement apprised of the ties between Raúl Salinas and the Gulf cartel.
In the fall of 1991 Calderoni began talking with federal prosecutors in Dallas, who had just indicted García Abrego and wanted to arrange his surrender and attempt to obtain his cooperation. But it was a dangerous game, even for someone so shrewd. Late that year the U.S. State Department—concerned about mucking around in another nation’s internal affairs—put the kabosh on the Justice Department’s efforts to debrief Calderoni. During one of his secret interviews with assistant U.S. attorney Mark McBride, Calderoni was abruptly ordered back to Mexico. “He told us they would try to silence him because of our meetings,” McBride remembers. “He called it.” Indeed, less than a year later, Calderoni was drummed out of the MFJP on what he says were trumped-up charges of torturing prisoners; he escaped to Texas in January 1993, and with the help of high-ranking FBI and DEA officials, he obtained his resident alien card.
Ever since, the Comandante has lived among the manicured lawns, palm trees, and ten-foot concrete walls of McAllen’s chichi Country Club Place. His family, including his ex-wife and five children, live nearby. As befits a gentleman of means—according to court records, he is worth $6.5 million to $7 million—he plays a lot of golf when he’s not managing his assets: a trucking company called Pyda Foods, a cattle ranch in Mexico, and a car dealership, among other holdings. This is not to say that his life has been entirely free of complications; just days after he fled, Mexican authorities demanded his extradition. But in February 1995 a U.S. magistrate refused to extradite Calderoni after all of the “tortured” prisoners recanted.
More than two years later the question on everyone’s mind is what pieces of the puzzle Calderoni can provide. The U.S. prosecutors building a case against Raúl Salinas hope he’ll tell all he knows, but the cagey Comandante shows no signs of singing. “They’ve contacted him,” says Tony Canales. “They’ve contacted all of my clients, including García Abrego. None of them is coop-erating.” For now.