Former Mexican drug czar

Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo listens during a U.S.-Mexico drug summit in Mexico City in 1996. (Dario Lopez Mills / Associated Press)

MEXICO CITY -- Handpicked for the job by the Mexican president, praised by the U.S. government for his honesty, army Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo seemed the perfect man to serve as drug czar. But barely 11 weeks on the job, Gutierrez Rebollo was fired in February 1997 and later convicted of working for a cartel he was tasked to fight.

To this day, the Gutierrez Rebollo case remains a prime example of the extent to which drug corruption can permeate Mexico’s most important institutions.

Gutierrez Rebollo died Thursday of complications following cancer surgery at a military hospital in Mexico City, his lawyer said. He was 79 and had been serving a 40-year sentence, most recently in a hospital because of illness.

In the late 1990s, Gutierrez Rebollo was accused of aiding the then-dominant Juarez cartel headed at the time by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the “Lord of the Skies” -- so known for his practice of flying planes packed with cocaine -- and one of the early grand masters of Mexican drug trafficking.

The embarrassing allegations came shortly after Gutierrez was appointed the head of the equivalent of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He had come highly recommended by top government officials, and enthusiastically endorsed by Washington, based on his 42-year career in the military, duty that had included heading drug interdiction operations.

Instead, officials said after his arrest in 1997, he was easing cocaine shipments and accepting millions of dollars in bribes from Carrillo Fuentes.

He was sentenced to 40 years in jail, but his family and lawyer maintained his innocence and were pursuing an appeal at the time of his death.

The Gutierrez case represented the most egregious involving military corruption until last year, when six senior military officials were arrested on similar charges. However, those prosecutions, among the last in the government of former President Felipe Calderon, fell apart, and the officers were released soon after current President Enrique Peña Nieto took office last December.

It has been reported that Gutierrez served as a model for a corrupt general in Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film, "Traffic."

wilkinson@latimes.com