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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE : Marching the police off to jail : As Mexico's drug war rages, officials are making an unprecedented push to clean up the nation's notoriously corrupt law enforcement

November 17, 2009|Ken Ellingwood

SAN LUIS POTOSI, MEXICO — The lie-detector team brought in by Mexico's top cop was supposed to help clean up the country's long-troubled police. There was just one problem: Most of its members themselves didn't pass, and a supervisor was rigging results to make sure others did.

When public safety chief Genaro Garcia Luna found out, he canned the team, all 50 to 60 members.

"He fired everybody," a senior U.S. law enforcement official said.

But the episode shows how difficult it will be for Mexico to reverse a legacy of police corruption that has tainted whole departments, shattered people's faith in law enforcement and compromised one of society's most basic institutions.

President Felipe Calderon's 3-year-old drug offensive has laid bare the extent to which crime syndicates have infiltrated police agencies at virtually every level. By blurring the line between crime fighters and gangsters, the rampant graft stands as one of the biggest impediments to the Calderon campaign.

Amid the raging drug war, Mexican officials are trying to fix the police through a hurried nationwide effort that includes better screening and training for candidates on a scale never tried here before.

At the heart of the overhaul is a "new police model" that stresses technical sophistication and trustworthiness and that treats police work as a professional career, not a fallback job.

In steps that are groundbreaking for Mexico, cadets and veteran cops are being forced to bare their credit card and bank accounts, submit to polygraph tests and even reveal their family members to screeners to prove they have no shady connections.

Across Mexico, hundreds of state and municipal officers have been purged from their departments and scores more arrested on charges of colluding with drug gangs.

But Mexico has a habit of trading in one corrupt police agency for another, and it will be a long, uphill struggle to create a law enforcement system that can confront crime and gain the trust of ordinary Mexicans. Until then, crooked cops undermine efforts to strengthen the rule of law and defeat drug cartels.

"If you don't have a safe environment to conduct investigations, then it's going to be extremely difficult to capture the narcos," said the U.S. law enforcement official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "If you have state police that are corrupt and constantly feeding your movements, investigative movements, to the bad guys, you're not going to get anywhere."

Vigilante fears

Some people fear that the soaring drug violence and mistrust toward police could spark the formation of death squads or vigilante groups. Already there have been suspicions, though no proof, that dozens of killings have been committed by people taking the law into their own hands. More than 13,800 people have been slain since Calderon declared war on the drug cartels, according to unofficial news media tallies.

Although Mexican federal police are in charge of the crackdown against the cartels, it is at the state and municipal levels where law enforcement is most vulnerable, officials and analysts say. Drug gangs exploit hometown ties, dangle bribes and threaten the lives of officers and their relatives to turn police into a kind of fifth column.

Poorly paid state and municipal officers are often on the payroll of drug smugglers, passing tips, providing muscle or looking the other way when illegal drugs are shipped through their turf.

Criminal infiltration of local departments has worsened as the Mexican political system becomes less centralized and as narcotics traffickers delve into offshoot enterprises, such as kidnapping, theft and extortion, that under Mexican law fall within the jurisdiction of state authorities.

At times, local police have faced off in tense showdowns against Mexican federal police and soldiers. The mistrust often prompts federal authorities to keep their state and municipal counterparts in the dark, aggravating interagency frictions.

"There is a disorganized police fighting against organized crime," said Guillermo Zepeda, a police expert at the Center of Research for Development in Mexico City.

In the western state of Michoacan, 10 municipal officers were arrested in the slayings of 12 federal agents there in July. In the Gulf of Mexico port city of Veracruz, authorities investigating the June disappearance of customs administrator Francisco Serrano detained nearly 50 municipal officers. The then-chief of municipal police for the seaport and three traffic officers were later charged with his kidnapping. Serrano is still missing.

The profound flaws of Mexico's police, who are frequently ill trained, poorly equipped and unhappy in their work, are the most visible emblems of how the drug offensive is straining the nation's broader system of law and order.

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