Mexico’s New Top Cop Pick: Can Its First Female Attorney General Rein In the Narcos?

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Mexican President Felipe Calderón could stand to build a few bridges with Washington at the moment. Last month saw the resignation of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, who many believe was forced out by Calderon’s unusually public complaints about confidential U.S. diplomatic cables, released last December by WikiLeaks, in which Pascual criticizes certain aspects of Mexico’s drug war. Now it seems that more recently WikiLeaked cables may help explain why Calderon has chosen Marisela Morales to be his new Attorney General – Mexico’s first female top cop if she’s approved by its Senate.

As the Mexico City daily La Jornada first reported on Friday, a U.S. cable sent from Mexico City to the State Department in 2009 describes Morales as having “excellent relations” with her counterparts in the U.S. In another 2009 communiqué, Pascual himself notes that in a meeting with U.S. security officials, Morales remarked that “Mexico has much to learn from the U.S.” about building the kind of institutional rule of law needed to rein in the narco-cartels responsible for 35,000 murders in Mexico since Calderón took office in December 2006. And just last month, at an event hosted by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama, Morales received an International Women of Courage award for her work confronting drug traffickers. Morales, said Clinton, “has shown an unfailing drive to combat organized crime and corruption.”

Morales, whom Calderón tapped last Thursday to replace Arturo Chávez, who had earlier resigned, currently heads the Attorney General’s organized crime division, known by its Spanish acronym SIEDO. She has handled a number of high-profile cases targeting top drug lords as well as Mexican officials corrupted by the cartels – including her SIEDO predecessor, who in 2008 was charged with allegedly receiving $450,000 from Mexico’s most powerful drug organization, the Sinaloa Cartel. Calderón said Morales “enjoys prestige inside and outside” Mexico.

But she also has her doubters at home and abroad – largely because she’s got some high-profile debacles on her resume, too. The most prominent was the recent corruption bust of more than 30 mayors and other high officials in Calderón’s home state of Michoacán, all charged with being in the pockets of the cartels. Holes in the government’s cases have led to judges freeing all but one of the accused officials, leaving the Calderón Administration with a major embarrassment that has only undermined Mexicans’ confidence in their judicial institutions.

If she’s approved, Morales would be Calderón’s third Attorney General in little more than four years. His first, Eduardo Medina, quit two years ago in part because he felt Calderon conferred more power on his federal police chief, Genaro García Luna, than on the Attorney General. (Calderón critics say that’s one reason the prosecutorial end of his anti-drug offensive has suffered, as evidenced by the Michoacán fiasco.) The second, Chávez, felt similarly undercut, but he had his own baggage, including his failure as the attorney general of northern Chihuahua state to prosecute hundreds if not thousands of murders of women in the violent border city of Juárez. (Yet another WikiLeaked U.S. cable called Chávez’s 2009 appointment “politically inexplicable.”)

Medina and Chávez were also seen as less politically committed to Calderón and his wing of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) than Morales is expected to be. That makes her choice a hat-trick for Calderón: it gives him a more politically loyal AG; it helps him mend fences with Washington; and it lets him score a long overdue victory for women in Mexico, which according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report ranks well behind other major Latin American countries like Brazil (which just inaugurated its first female President, Dilma Rousseff) in terms of female empowerment.

Mexicans can only hope Morales’ choice will also be a step forward for institutional rule of law – namely, a strengthening of the Attorney General’s office, which has been overshadowed not only by García Luna but by the Mexican military, which owns the lion’s share of authority in Calderón’s anti-narco crusade. That situation is ironic given that Calderón has also pushed some of Mexico’s more meaningful judicial reforms, the kind of investigative advances that in the future could weaken the cartels’ financial power and expose their legions of political and business partners. In that sense, though it sounds very gringo to say it, a lot may ride on how much top cops like Morales really have learned from the U.S.

With reporting by Dolly Mascareñas and Ioan Grillo/Mexico City