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24/10/2010 | A top Salvadoran ex-guerrilla commander advises Mexico's conservative president

Tracy Wilkinson

Joaquin Villalobos, whom U.S. officials once called 'the baby-faced killer,' has emerged as one of the key advisors behind Mexican President Felipe Calderon's military crackdown on drug cartels.


When he was the ruthless military commander of El Salvador's leftist guerrillas two decades ago, Joaquin Villalobos was a big fan of body counts. The higher the death toll, he would say, the closer to victory, because it meant the enemy was being eliminated.

Today, the man U.S. officials once called "the baby-faced killer" has emerged somewhat improbably as one of the key advisors behind conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderon's military crackdown on powerful drug cartels. And his message, if not his ideology, is much the same.

He argues that a death toll that has soared to 30,000 in nearly four years reflects the "self-destruction" of drug cartels as they fight one another. It is a doctrine that Calderon has begun to quote publicly and repeatedly.

It does not set well with many Mexicans, nor with other Calderon advisors, who have argued that the strategic priority should be to contain the violence because of the debilitating, fear-producing repercussions on broader society.

An examination of Villalobos' role provides a rare glimpse of the power behind the throne, the thinking that has gone into the formation of the close-to-the-vest president's strategy as he wages the deadliest conflict in Mexico in a century.

"Calderon sees him as some kind of a guru," said a senior government analyst who disagrees with Villalobos and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

In fact, Villalobos' and Calderon's rhetoric on the subject is so close that it is at times difficult to determine who first uttered a certain line or phrase.

"Villalobos says that what happened in Colombia, and what's happening now in Mexico, is that when you confront these cartels, it generates a process of self-destruction that, clearly, weakens them," Calderon told a television interviewer several weeks ago.

"Despite the fact that [it] generates great anxiety in society, the violence is part of the destruction of these groups, and that has a lot of logic to it," Calderon said in another appearance, again citing Villalobos. "These criminals would prefer to be at peace, doing their business."

Villalobos, who first started consulting for the Mexican government in 2005, months before Calderon was elected, seems to have uniquely gained the president's confidence, to the chagrin of other government officials who believe that the philosophy espoused by the former rebel commander is mistaken because he does not know Mexico or its peculiarities.

Those officials say Villalobos hews too closely to the lessons of Colombia's guerrilla war, lessons that don't really apply. And, they argue, a high body count alone does not necessarily translate into success because of the steady supply of pliable new recruits that seems to keep cartel ranks well stocked.

Villalobos, in an interview, said that the violence will be reduced only when broader goals are achieved, such as overhauling the police force and reforming the judiciary, and that Mexican society must prepare itself for a long struggle.

"The imperative is to restore state authority, order, where the government has lost it," he said. "The growth of the state is a slow process, and only then will the violence diminish."

That the former leftist guerrilla chief now advises right-wing governments — he also counseled former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe — is part of a personal evolution that began as El Salvador's war was winding down and as Villalobos fell out with most of his onetime comrades.

Now approaching 60, grayer and a bit slower, Villalobos in the 1980s commanded the most combative faction of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, in his nation's civil war. He was a formidable military strategist, one of the region's top rebel leaders.

But he was also instrumental in the FMLN's decision to lay down weapons, join a peace process and accept a settlement that ended the war in January 1992.

William Walker, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador at the end of the conflict, recalls being surprised and impressed. The U.S. had steadfastly backed the right-wing Salvadoran government against the guerrillas; Walker and Villalobos, then, were sworn enemies.

"He gave the most reasonable, constructive speech" at a ceremony formally ending the war. "It was: The war is over, we have to work for El Salvador.

"He was smart and pragmatic and not an ideologue," Walker said. "Once, he was confessing to me the mistakes they had made. He said, 'We should never have presented ourselves to the world as Marxist Leninist. We didn't know what it meant. We just knew it irritated the hell out of you guys.'"

With ideology cast aside, it was easier for Villalobos to reinvent himself as a post-Cold War security expert and peacemaker.

But it also led to a rupture with his FMLN faction as it struggled to become a political party. Villalobos said he was trying to modernize the organization in the new reality of compromise and politics. Former comrades say he was more interested in pursuing business interests than in carrying on with a leftist campaign for justice.

"I consider him a traitor," said Hector Ibarra, a midlevel commander in Villalobos' FMLN faction who now works as a writer in Mexico. "He did a lot of damage to us. He had much weight and influence, and when he made his big turn to the right, it condemned us to orphanhood."

By 1995, Villalobos had broken away from the FMLN altogether. In 1996, with enemies on the right and the left, he abandoned El Salvador with his wife and three sons for a comfortable exile in Oxford, England, where he mastered English, earned a degree in political science, wrote books and launched a new career as a consultant. (Despite the rebirth, Villalobos says he still has trouble getting a visa to visit the United States.)

Early this year, Villalobos emerged not only as an advisor to the Mexican government but as one of the most public defenders of its drug-war strategy.

"Although we are dealing with a complex problem that requires time to get under control, there is no reason to be pessimistic," Villalobos wrote in a much-cited article in the respected online magazine Nexos on Jan.1.

"The problem is that in the intermediate phase of the war, political pressure demands a reduction in violence," he wrote. "In Mexico, it will take time yet for violence to be reduced. But there is a process of self-destruction that is accelerating and that is a positive indicator."

Much of what Villalobos wrote in that and other high-profile articles became templates for speeches Calderon would give throughout the year, including the argument that Brazil's homicide rate is much higher than Mexico's, and yet Brazil, rather than being described as a virtual failed state, is hosting the Olympics.

Calderon featured Villalobos at this year's annual gathering of Mexico's ambassadors and consuls stationed the world over, brought to Mexico City for meetings on government policy. And the Salvadoran was one of only two non-Mexicans invited by Calderon to speak as an "expert" (not identified as a government employee) at a series of high-profile "security dialogues" over the summer.

Villalobos has dismissed speculation that he is biding his time for a return to El Salvador and a run for president, something many there suspect he is planning to do. It would be a challenging campaign, as he has little obvious support base. The onetime hero of the armed left is mistrusted by the right he fought and the left that feels betrayed by him.

And as popular support in Mexico for Calderon declines amid the seemingly endless war, Villalobos could suffer from his association with it.

"I continue thinking Joaquin is a brilliant military strategist, and what you have here is a war," said Ibarra, the onetime comrade-in-arms. "But of course he doesn't know this country, its history. He knew El Salvador, lived its entire process. But Mexico is something else."

Los Angeles Times (Estados Unidos)


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