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MEXICO

Army Comes In, Police Step Out for Retraining and Re-Education

Troops will patrol streets while Mexico City tries to clean up a police force tainted by corruption.

March 22, 1997|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — At age 18, Gerardo Mendoza has already served three years in the Mexican Army. The baby-faced private spent most of it in the mountains--burning marijuana fields, chasing drug smugglers and running counterinsurgency operations in the southernmost state of Chiapas.

But now, and for the next 31 months, Mendoza will be a foot soldier on the front line of another urgent war: the Mexican government's desperate struggle to root out police corruption, curb spiraling crime and restore peace and security in this nation's deeply troubled capital.

Mendoza patrolled on foot this week in the town square of Mexico City's crime-infested Iztapalapa district. He directed traffic, gave directions and watched for street crime as part of a 2,500-member military brigade that has taken over police duties in one of the capital's most dangerous areas.

The brainchild of Mexico City's police chief, army Gen. Enrique Salgado, the troop deployment in Iztapalapa is the first step in a 32-month program to re-educate and retrain police and oust overage, overweight and corrupt cops from the city's 70,000-member force.

While the troops are on Iztapalapa's streets, the cops are in school, learning professional police tactics, human rights, public relations, social etiquette and physical exercise. When their two-month course is over, the police officers will return to work--presumably as a leaner, kinder force. The army brigade, meantime, will redeploy in the next of Mexico City's 16 districts; it will keep moving around until 24,000 police are retrained throughout this metropolitan area of about 20 million.

But the experiment is as controversial as it is ambitious.

It is part of a trend that many experts have expressed doubts about--the increasing role of the military in civilian law enforcement throughout Mexico. So far, the greatest such military involvement has been in this nation's counter-narcotics war--a strategy of last resort adapted by President Ernesto Zedillo to try to crack down on drug mafias while dealing with widespread corruption in regular law enforcement agencies.

But critics say the deployment of forces exposes the military to the same corruption that has compromised the police; two army generals--including the nation's top counter-narcotics official--have already been arrested on drug-corruption charges in the past month.

When Salgado summoned the troops here on Feb. 28 for their first tour of police duty, the chief insisted that weekly community meetings and structural changes in the department will help reduce the possibility of military corruption during the long retraining program throughout the capital.

Salgado also said he gave the new troops special police training to help them to adjust from jungle combat to civilian duties.

So far, public reaction has been mixed to the soldiers during their first weeks on the beat. In Iztapalapa, a district hardened by violent crime and police corruption, some say the soldiers--who dress in police uniforms and carry the same arms as police officers here normally do--have begun to make a difference.

"This is better," said Juan Carlos Romero, 27, as he unloaded seafood at his brother's stand near the town square. "The soldiers are better trained and more capable of confronting all kinds of problems. The police, well, they even cheat and steal from each other."

As for jungle-trained soldiers taking over local police work, Romero said: "Well, this is a jungle of crime here. . . . But if the military also gets corrupted, then we're in a real mess."

Still, for Maria de Capaz Parra, the soldiers have made no difference. On Wednesday morning, two days after she and her family were tied up, terrorized and robbed in their Iztapalapa home, De Capaz called a local radio station to appeal for help. The family had reported the robbery to the police but no authorities answered. They said they even went to the police station. Two days later, no detectives had visited their home.

"On my block, I haven't seen one military policeman--not a single one," De Capaz said, breaking down in tears. "I don't think it's fair that one should have to live with kids under these conditions when no one wants to protect us."

But even Mendoza, the young soldier now walking Iztapalapa's beat, was realistic in his assessment.

"No," he said flatly, when asked if the troops can rid the district of its crime wave. "The whole problem cannot be solved. But . . . if someone makes a left turn on a no-left-turn street, I will give them a ticket and send them to court. I won't ask for money. That's when people will start talking about about us too--that we're all just the same."

Helena Sundman of the Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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