Investigators check a U.S. diplomatic vehicle attacked by Mexican federal… (Nuvia Reyes, AFP/Getty…)
MEXICO CITY — In the midst of a violent drug war, President Felipe Calderon fired crooked cops by the hundreds, and hired new ones — rigorously vetted and college educated — by the thousands. Salaries were doubled, new standards imposed and officers were subjected to extensive background checks.
A trustworthy federal police force was to be one of the most important legacies of Calderon's six-year term. And yet, just months before he is to leave office in December, the president found himself apologizing "profoundly" this week for an incident in which federal police allegedly opened fire on an SUV with diplomatic plates, injuring two Americans.
A dozen federal police officers are being detained while the Mexican attorney general's office investigates the incident. Many of the details remain unclear, including what may have motivated officers to open fire on the vehicle, which was traveling through dangerous countryside south of Mexico City.
PHOTOS: U.S. diplomatic vehicle attacked by Mexican federal police
The CIA has declined to comment on reports in U.S. and Mexican media that the Americans were CIA agents. They were heading to a Mexican military installation where they were serving as trainers.
But since the incident, which occurred just two months after a shootout involving crooked federal officers that left three dead at the Mexico City airport, the denunciations of the police have been withering. For many here, whether the attackers turned out to be corrupt or just bumbling, Calderon's new and improved federal police force is just more of the same.
In the Mexico City newspaper Reforma, columnist Roberto Zamarripa accused the police of being "guardians of the refuges of criminal operators," despite a lack of evidence that they were linked to drug gangs. A cartoonist for the paper El Universal drew a federal policeman in front of the Americans' bullet-riddled SUV. "We thought they were common citizens," the cartoon cop explained.
In Chapultepec Park, a 19-year-old peanut vendor laughed when asked whether the force had changed for the better.
He laughed again when asked to give his name, as though anyone would be foolish enough to do so when the police were so crooked.
"Here, everything runs on money," he said. "The drug cartels have enough money to give to the federal police, and everybody else, to control everything they do."
Mexicans have long been wary of police at all levels. Officers are notorious not only for soliciting the little bribes known as mordidas, but for shaking down innocents, running kidnapping rings, and serving as security forces and death squads for the drug gangs. One 2010 poll found that only 8% of respondents felt strong confidence in the police.
Mexican officials know that re-establishing trust between citizens and police is one key to winning their war against the narco cartels. A forum Tuesday sponsored by the citizen group Causa en Comun, was titled "Joining Forces: Citizens and Police," and among those in attendance were Calderon and the U.S. ambassador, Anthony Wayne.
Calderon used the occasion to apologize for the shooting, "whether it was due to negligence, or lack of training, or lack of trustworthiness, or by complicity."
"These acts are not acceptable, and are being fully and rigorously investigated," he said.
Mexican news organizations identified one of the wounded Americans as Stan D. Boss. According to public records, that name is among dozens who share a post office box in Dunn Loring, Va., that apparently has been used for people with CIA aliases.
High-profile embarrassments to Mexico caused by the federal police may serve to further complicate the already-daunting task awaiting President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, who has vowed to pursue the drug cartels using the same aggressive strategy as Calderon, relying on both the federal police and the military.
Like Calderon, the new president will be faced with the monumental task of fighting the drug war while trying to strengthen and reform the shaky institutions on its front lines. Peña Nieto has vowed to continue to the "professionalization" of the national police, and hopes to further expand its ranks, to 50,000 officers from 36,000.
At the forum this week, Calderon boasted of steps he had taken to clean up the police: When he took office, he said, there were no "confidence control" measures for police. Now, he said, there were 38 centers dedicated to law enforcement background checks.
He described police reform as a work in progress.
"Cutting down the tree of corruption will take many chops," he said. "Those great trees don't fall with one chop. You have to hack it again and again."
But recent events have raised doubt about whether Calderon's new tree will be any healthier.