MEXICO CITY (AP) — Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, a Mexican drug czar disgraced by his arrest and conviction for aiding a powerful drug cartel, died Thursday after a long bout of prostate cancer, his lawyer said. He was 79.
Gutierrez Rebollo had been sick for more than two years at a military hospital in Mexico City and died of complications from the cancer, including respiratory failure, lawyer Javier Marban Corral said.
The general, who was one of the highest-level officials to ever have been convicted of drug-trafficking in Mexico, was hailed as a seasoned general of "impeccable integrity."
But his celebrated career, which peaked when President Ernesto Zedillo appointed him head of Mexico's anti-drug agency, crumbled two months later when police arrested him in February 1997. He was found to be living in a luxury apartment owned by cocaine kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes, also known as the "Lord of the Skies."
Gutierrez Rebollo was first convicted of drug trafficking, racketeering and corruption and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Later, prosecutors got an additional 31 years tacked on for delivering military firearms to drug traffickers. However, in 2011, a court reduced his sentence again to 40 years and gave him back his military title.
The case was such a scandal in the late 1990s and early 2000s that he inspired the character of the Mexican drug czar in Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film "Traffic."
"He was the first high-ranking general to be captured in the war on drugs in Mexico," said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "It was a message for all soldiers 'to be careful of getting involved with cartels.' He was a prestigious general."
He was not the last high-ranking official to fall from grace.
Another drug czar, Noe Ramirez, was charged with organized crime after he was arrested in 2008 as part of former President Felipe Calderon's sweeping effort to root out corruption. A judge ordered Ramirez's release from a maximum-security prison earlier this year, arguing the main witness in the case lied and that prosecutors might have fabricated evidence.
To Gutierrez Rebollo's last day, the general maintained he was innocent. He repeated accusations that he was prosecuted for political reasons, having exposed drug ties of the then-president's father-in-law.
Marban said his client had been notified the night before his death that he could serve his remaining sentence under house arrest because of his health and old age.
"He had plans to spend Christmas eve with his family. He was hopeful," Marban said.
Gutierrez Rebollo married twice and had four children and three grandchildren.
The general's son has said he will file a posthumous appeal seeking to have the general acquitted of the charges.
Security expert Benitez said Gutierrez Rebollo became a symbol of Mexico's fight against corruption, a way for the country to show the U.S. it was deeply engaged in weeding out corrupt officials despite their high ranks.
"There was little his defense could do. There was a lynch mob mentality," Benitez said. "No general would like to die like he did, accused of drug trafficking after being isolated for years in a prison. Nobody wants to die like that."
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