MEXICO CITY — Federal police in the northern state of Coahuila had seven drug suspects in hand last week when they met a caravan of gun-toting men apparently intent on freeing the arrestees.
The highway standoff quickly turned nasty, and bullets began to fly. When the shooting stopped, one of the would-be rescuers was dead and two were wounded. The federal police arrested 33 more people.
But these were no ordinary gunmen. They were police officers from the city of Torreon, in uniform and aboard official police pickups.
In the trenches of the drug war, cops were fighting cops.
The shootout last Monday underscores the grave troubles facing Mexico's top police official, Genaro Garcia Luna, as he seeks to overhaul his nation's law enforcement system.
As field marshal in the government's 21-month-old offensive against drug traffickers, the former intelligence specialist has begun trying to turn Mexico's police into a modern, trustworthy and well-equipped force. His task amounts to fixing a broken army in the midst of a war -- a conflict that has killed 2,700 people this year.
More than 500 police officers and soldiers have died since the government campaign began in December 2006.
The weaknesses of Mexican police are vast. Most officers have at most a grade school education. They often have to buy their own guns on wages equal to those of a supermarket cashier. Many times, the average cop has his hand out for a bribe, in part to pay off bosses for the privilege of a job he probably will not hold for more than a few years. Problems are worst at the local levels.
And this nation seems to reshuffle its sprawling patchwork of police agencies as often as it changes presidents (every six years).
Today's crusader can be tomorrow's convict, as Mexicans learned bitterly in 1997 when the nation's touted drug czar, Army Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested on charges of working with traffickers.
It's anybody's guess where Garcia Luna, 40, will be a year from now. Many Mexicans complain that he has little to show for his efforts.
But analysts say new conditions may allow Garcia Luna to overcome Mexico's disappointing track record on police reform.
Most important, President Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party has made the anti-crime campaign a centerpiece of his administration. The president has backed his rhetoric by dispatching 40,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police officers to drug-smuggling hot spots nationwide. He also has expressed support for consolidating the ungainly jumble of overlapping agencies into a centrally controlled national force. But that idea is politically explosive because the constitution gives states considerable autonomy, including control of their own security forces.
"If Genaro Garcia Luna can do this, it's because Calderon is behind him," said Ernesto Lopez Portillo, who heads the Institute for Democracy and Security, a Mexico City-based think tank.
Since becoming public safety secretary in December 2006, Garcia Luna has shaken up federal police agencies, whose staff totals nearly 25,000. He put Mexico's version of the FBI, which he once ran, under the same roof as the Federal Preventive Police (itself expanded to incorporate the Federal Highway Patrol). The result is a consolidated Federal Police.
Garcia Luna has purged 284 federal police commanders, promoted 1,600 officers and added 3,000 positions. He has more than doubled pay for federal officers to $1,200 a month and recruited aggressively at universities to attract the best and brightest to work he views as increasingly sophisticated.
Garcia Luna has sent officers back to class and imposed strict new professional standards. Eventually, those standards will apply to all of Mexico's more than 300,000 state and local police officers, whose long tradition of corruption has made them a weak link in fighting crime.
The military has assumed anti-drug patrols in some spots because local police are considered unreliable.
Federal police are hardly beyond reproach, however. Officials were embarrassed last week when a federal officer turned up among five people arrested in connection with the highly publicized kidnapping and killing of a 14-year-old boy in Mexico City.
Garcia Luna asserts that decades of neglect, mainly under the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, left police 30 years behind in training, equipment and conduct. Now, he contends, it is time to catch up and clean up.
"The corruption in law enforcement agencies helped crime expand and began the evolution of the criminal and crime," Garcia Luna said during a recent appearance before Congress. "Police fell further behind and lost effectiveness."
A key part of the strategy is technology. Garcia Luna, who served as intelligence chief in the Federal Preventive Police and later founded the Mexican FBI under then-President Vicente Fox, is fond of saying that Mexico will prevail against drug gangs through brain work, not bullets.