WASHINGTON (AP) _ The kingpins of a major Mexican drug cartel pay off hundreds of Mexican law enforcement officials for protection, information and help moving overland and into the United States almost at will, The Washington Post reported in an account based on federal documents.

In its Sunday editions, the newspaper said the documents, filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego and unsealed last week, contain testimony from men identified as key operatives of the Tijuana cartel detailing operations of a smuggling cartel run by brothers in the Arellano Felix family.

Corruption and violence in the region has been widely known, but the Post said the papers filed by the Mexican government to buttress an extradition request provide previously unknown details of the cartel's operations.

Disclosure of the court papers comes barely a month before the Clinton administration is required to decide whether to certify that Mexico is doing enough to combat drug trafficking, a finding that will have a major impact on general U.S.-Mexican relations.

The Post said the hundreds of pages of documents, in both English and Spanish, describe a criminal empire that pays off Mexican law enforcement officers to help assassinate fellow officers, guard drug shipments, tip off the drug family about investigations and provide it with the names of witnesses prepared to testify against the criminal family.

In one instance, the papers describe how the cartel co-opted an army captain serving in President Ernesto Zedillo's security detail. The guard told Mexican prosecutors how he had recruited young soldiers to help the Tijuana cartel unload planes stuffed with cocaine from Colombia and assisted the cartel in the murder of a senior Tijuana counter-narcotics chief.

The documents were filed by Mexican authorities seeking extradition of two men accused of being hit men for the Arellano Felix family. It includes four brothers identified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as being responsible for most of the cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines shipped into the United States along the California-Mexico border.