City cops killing their own mayors; state jailers helping inmates escape; federal agents mutinying against corrupt commanders; outgunned officers cut down in ambushes or assassinated because they work for gangster rivals.
Always precariously frayed, Mexico’s thin blue line seems ready to snap.
Six prison guards were killed Wednesday as they left their night shift in Chihuahua City, 200 miles south of El Paso. On Tuesday, the head of a police commander supposedly investigating the death of an American on the Texas border was packed into a suitcase and sent to a local army base.
Mexicans justifiably have long considered their police suspect. But today many of those wearing the badge are even more brazenly bad: either unwilling or unable to squelch the lawless terror that’s claimed nearly 30,000 lives in less than four years.
State and local forces, which employ 90 percent of Mexico’s 430,000 officers, find themselves outgunned, overwhelmed and often purchased outright by gangsters.
Despite some dramatic improvements — aided by U.S. dollars and training under the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative — Mexico’s 32,000 federal police remain spread thin and hobbled by graft. And many in Mexico consider the American investment little help so far against the bloody tide wrought by drug gangs.
Grasping for a cure, President Felipe Calderon and other officials are pushing to unify Mexico’s nearly 2,000 municipal police under 32 state agencies that they insist can better withstand the criminals’ volleys of bullets and cash.
“The tentacles of organized crime have touched everyone,” said Ignacio Manjarrez, who oversees public security issues for a powerful business association in Chihuahua, the state bordering West Texas that has become Mexico’s most violent. “There are some who are loyal to their uniform and others who will take money from anyone and everyone.
“We let it into our society. Now we are paying the consequences.”
Many actions, few results
Across Mexico, local, state and federal police forces have been purged, then purged again. Veteran officers and recruits alike undergo polygraphs, drug tests and background checks. A national database has been set up to ensure that those flushed from one force don’t resurface in another.
Still the plague persists.
One of the surest signals that rivals are going to war over a community or smuggling routes are the dumped corpses of cops who start turning up dead. Many, if not most, of the officers are targeted because they work for one gang or the other.
Scores of federal officers rebelled this summer, accusing their commanders of extortion in Ciudad Juarez, the murderous border city that Calderon pledged to pacify. As a result, Mexican officials fired a tenth of the federal police force.
The warden and some guards at a Durango state prison were arrested in July after a policeman confessed in a taped gangland interrogation that they aided an imprisoned crime boss’s nightly release so he could kill his enemies.
Another prison warden and scores of guards were detained in August following the breakout of 85 gangsters in Reynosa, on the Rio Grande near McAllen.
On Friday, the governor of Tamaulipas state, which borders South Texas, ordered the purging of the police force in the important port city of Tampico. Gov. Eugenio Hernandez said he took the action following officers’ apparent participation in this week’s brief abduction of five university students in the city.
$100 million a month
Mexico’s top federal policeman, Genaro Garcia Luna, has estimated gangsters pass out some $100 million each month to local and state cops on the take.
“There really is no internal capacity or appetite to try to get their arms around corruption,” said a former U.S. official with intimate knowledge of Mexico’s security forces. “Anyone who sticks their head up, wanting to make a change, is eliminated.”
Edelmiro Cavazos, mayor of Santiago, a picturesque Monterrey suburb, had vowed after taking office to clean up its police force, which many believe is controlled by the gangster band known as the Zetas.
He barely got the chance to try.
Killers came for him in August, arriving at his home on five trucks, a surveillance tape showing their headlights slicing the night like knives as his own police bodyguard waved them in.
A workman found Cavazos’ blindfolded and bound body a few days later, tortured, shot three times and dumped like rubbish along a highway outside Santiago.
The bodyguard and six other officers from Santiago’s police force are among those accused in the killing.
“They considered him an obstacle,” the Nuevo Leon state attorney general said.
Following Cavazos’ slaying and that of 600 others in the Monterrey area this year, Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina proposed bringing municipal police forces under unified state command.
“We have to act as a common front,” Medina told reporters. “If we are divided in isolated forces and we have a united organized crime against us and society, we aren’t going to be able to articulate the forceful response we need.”
New command structure
The tiny western state of Aguascalientes created a unified police command this week. And Calderon won support for the plan Tuesday from 10 newly elected governors.
“Having institutions that enjoy the full confidence of the public can’t be put off,” Calderon told the new governors. “The single police command is a crucial element in achieving the peace and tranquility that Mexicans deserve.”
Although small training programs for state and local forces exist, American dollars by way of the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative until now have been aimed mostly at Mexico’s federal police.
Intelligence gathering and sharing has been enhanced and computer systems upgraded. U.S. and other foreign experts have given extensive training to a third of the federal force, officials say, with another 10,000 Mexican officers attending workshops.
“Beyond the money, the Merida plan put information and technology at the disposal of the Mexican government,” said Manlio Fabio Beltrones, president of Mexico’s senate, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party is widely favored to reclaim the presidency in 2012.
Its critics argue that the U.S. aid has failed to curtail the violence, leaving communities and local police forces at the mercy of gangsters.
Javier Aguayo y Camargo, a retired army general who was replaced as Chihuahua City’s police chief this month, said no one has “figured out how to make the reforms work.”
“The resources of Merida remain at the federal level,” Aguayo y Carmargo said. “We haven’t felt any of it. They need to support the states and municipalities.”
Gangs reverse gains
Chihuahua City, capital of the state bordering West Texas, underscores just how quickly the drug wars have overpowered even the best attempts to strengthen local police.
Under a succession of mayors since the late 1990s, the city’s police steadily improved. Hiring standards were raised, record keeping improved, arrest and booking processes overhauled. A citizen’s oversight committee was set up with significant influence within the department.
Three years ago, the 1,100-officer force became the first in Mexico to be accredited by CALEA, a U.S.-based law enforcement association that rigorously evaluates police administrative standards. Only a handful of other Mexican cities have since won accreditation.
Then Mexico’s gangland wars arrived in 2008.
The city of 800,000 has been racked this year by an average of four killings daily, according to a recent study by El Heraldo, the leading local newspaper, about 30 times more than a few years ago. It now ranks as Mexico’s third most murderous city, behind Ciudad Juarez and Culiacan, capital of the gangster-infested state of Sinaloa, federal officials say.
Scores of city police officers have been fired for suspected corruption. More than two dozen others have been killed, either gunned down in street battles or assassinated by gangsters.
“If with all this equipment and training they are overwhelmed by the criminals, what happens in other places?” said Manjarrez, the businessman who monitors public security matters in Chihuahua. “As prepared as we were, we never saw this tsunami coming.”
– Article from the Houston Chronicle.