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Purged police force returns to streets of violent Mexican border city

Associated Press Writer

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico- Police officers returned to the streets of this violent city on the U.S.-Mexico border, almost six weeks after the entire force was pulled off the beat for drug testing and background checks in an effort to weed out corruption.

About a third of Nuevo Laredo's 700 police officers were fired in the anti-corruption drive, most for failing to take drug tests, said Daniel Pena, the mayor of this city across the border from Laredo, Texas, that has become battleground for gangs vying to control cocaine and marijuana smuggling routes.

Pena gave a symbolic order for police to retake the streets shortly after 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, and 44 officers drove off in new patrol cars. They wore new black-and-white uniforms, replacing their formally blue outfits.

The rest of the new force of 460 officers will go back to work as soon as Wednesday, Pena said.

Before the mass suspensions, Nuevo Laredo had more than 700 police officers, but about 250 officers were dismissed, the mayor said. Federal agents and soldiers patrolled the city after the entire force was pulled off the streets 41 days ago.

About 100 people have been killed here since January in violence sparked by two powerful drug gangs locked in a battle to control key drug smuggling corridors around Nuevo Laredo.

Last month, the city's police chief was gunned down hours after taking office, and municipal police opened fire on a group of federal agents sent in to restore order, forcing President Vicente Fox's government to launch a purge of local officers.

A small gathering of onlookers cheered the police officers as they took up a new round of patrols.

"They should be cleaner," said Josefina Rodriguez, an employee at a cell phone distributor. "Now that they've been put the test and passed, that means they're clean."

The federal agents and soldiers will continue to patrol the streets along with the purged police force, Pena said.

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