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Three candidates vie for police chief of violent border town

Associated Press Writer

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico- Setting aside their fears, three candidates have come forward to lead the police department of this violent border city where the previous police chief died in a hail of gunfire his first day on the job.

Besides the dangers of the post, the new appointee will have to cope with a force in chaos: All municipal police officers have been yanked off the street in recent weeks and investigated for links to organized crime.

Nuevo Laredo has become the center of a bloody turf war between what appears to be two of Mexico's top drug gangs for control of key smuggling routes into the United States.

Newspapers in this community of 330,000 across the border from Laredo, Texas, say the top contender is Omar Pimentel, a former highway patrol officer who was named director of the city's police academy in January.

Pimentel, 37, was also a candidate for the job a month ago, when Alejandro Dominguez was named police chief. Seven hours after being sworn in, Dominguez was gunned down as he climbed into his pickup truck.

"Of course, there is fear," Pimentel, who has three small children and a pregnant wife, said in an interview. "But there are risks in every job and if they call me, I will gladly take the job because I want to help bring peace back to the citizens of Nuevo Laredo."

Mayor Daniel Pena asked Pimentel to apply for the police chief post. If he is tapped for the job, Pimentel said he will ask for better training and higher salaries for police officers, who are ill-equipped and earn about $680 a month.

"If we don't want our police officers to deviate, then we need to give them better salaries because what they do is not easy work," Pimentel said.

A group of 47 cadets trained by Pimentel and two other instructors graduated Monday after four months of training. Pimentel said they are the first generation of what he hopes will be a more professional police force.

Another candidate for chief is Enrique Moreno, a career police officer with 36 years of experience who was named assistant police director last month and has been restructuring the department. Moreno was also approached by Pena.

Interviewed outside police headquarters, Moreno said, "If I'm named, I will continue to do the job I have been doing for years," but refused to comment further.

Julio Vargas, a 20-year force veteran who served as police chief six years ago, said via telephone he volunteered to again lead the force after seeing violence dominate daily life in Nuevo Laredo.

Vargas, like Pimentel, said higher salaries and better equipment for police officers were essential in the fight against drug-related violence.

"Unfortunately, the leaders of our three levels of government let the situation get out of control," Vargas said. "The only way to work through this crisis is to work together and leave aside the professional jealousy that sometimes exists among local, state and federal police."

Last month, municipal police fired on a convoy of federal agents sent to bolster security here. That shootout led President Vicente Fox to send hundreds of soldiers and federal agents to restore order.

Forty-one city police were detained immediately after the confrontation and flown to Mexico City, where they are being investigated for links to organized crime.

Agents armed with powerful rifles continue to patrol the streets, while municipal officers go through background checks and drug-testing aimed at purging the police force.

Vargas, 48, said he would lead the force with an iron fist and fight crime by coordinating efforts with state and federal authorities. He said he would also suggest federal agents go undercover and join the municipal police so as to keep an eye on officers tempted to work for drug cartels.

"I have three children who I want to see go out on the streets without fear," he said. "That's why I want to do this."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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