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Mexico cracks down on police corruption

By Chris Hawley and Sergio Solache

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's federal government and army are intervening in local police forces to purge their ranks of corrupt officers as part of President Felipe Calderon's broad crackdown on drug trafficking.

Similar initiatives to clean up Mexico's police have failed in the past, although Calderon has earned strong praise from the U.S. government for the effectiveness of his year-long campaign against the country's powerful and well-armed drug lords. President Bush called Calderon on Tuesday to congratulate him on his anti-drug efforts and pledge more U.S. help.

Federal agents have arrested at least 11 city and state police officers on drug charges during the past month. Army troops have also confiscated weapons from about 300 police along the Texas border who were under investigation for corruption. The intelligence chief of Mexico City's police department recently resigned after coming under investigation by the Mexican Justice Department.

"We are evaluating police commanders at all three levels of government (federal, state and local) to purge our police forces of bad elements and criminals who have infiltrated them," Mexican Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said during a meeting of federal law enforcement officials last month.

Calderon has used the army to arrest hundreds of drug suspects, including an alleged leader of the brutal Sinaloa Cartel and a suspected top hit man for the Arellano Felix gang of Tijuana. In October, the government seized an 11-ton shipment of cocaine, followed by a 26-ton seizure in November that Mexican authorities claimed was the world's biggest single cocaine bust.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has credited the Mexican crackdown with a reduction of cocaine supply in some U.S. cities.

Some analysts doubt the crackdown on local police will produce lasting results. After past crackdowns, many fired officers have been rehired in other districts because Mexico has no national blacklist for police, said Maureen Meyer, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Others simply go to work full-time for the drug traffickers.

"Just seizing their arms or purging the whole place isn't enough to really ensure that you're going to come up with a good, well-trained police force after the fact," Meyer said. She recommends better salaries and training as well as tougher educational requirements for potential recruits.

Since 1982, Mexican presidents have reorganized the federal law enforcement system five times and created at least four elite forces in an attempt to form new units that are free of corruption, according to a November report by WOLA.

However, new police forces have often succumbed to the influence of Mexico's deep-pocketed drug traffickers. In perhaps the most notorious case, agents from the U.S.-trained Special Airborne Force Groups deserted in the late 1990s and formed the Zetas, an elite group of hit men for the Gulf cartel.

Local police have also come under scrutiny before. In the 1990s, the Mexico City suburb of Nezahualcoyotl fired 318 officers, nearly its entire force. And the governor of Mexico State fired his police superintendent after two policemen tried to carjack the son of then-president Ernesto Zedillo.

The Calderon administration has taken the unprecedented step of temporarily disarming entire police forces. In January 2007, the army confiscated the guns of 2,300 Tijuana police while detectives checked to see whether any had been used in crimes. Most were returned within weeks.

Meanwhile, the United States has pledged millions of dollars for police training as part of a proposed $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico.

Not all of Mexico's 317,000 local and state police are getting rich off drug trafficking. Some simply look the other way out of fear, said Rep. Juan Francisco Rivera Bedoya, chairman of the public safety committee in the lower house of Congress. "The gangs threaten to kill their children and wives if they don't cooperate," he said. "Many decide to just quit."

Another obstacle to cleaning up police forces is officers' low pay, which makes them susceptible to kickbacks from drug smugglers moving their cargo through town, said Adalberto Santana, a historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and author of a book about drug smuggling.

In Mexico City, a beat police officer is paid $700 a month, the city government says. That compares with a $900 per month salary for a payroll clerk in the city government, for example.

Copyright 2008 The USA TODAY

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