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.
"His gun was the computer, from the beginning," said Lopez Portillo, the think tank chief.
On the ground floor of a gleaming police campus in the capital, rows of uniformed federal officers tap at computers linked to bases nationwide. Above them, oversize screens receive images from cameras posted in drug-smuggling hot spots, such as Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, and along the U.S. border. The network will eventually give police in Mexico City quick access to fingerprints and other crime data from every town in the country.
U.S. officials praise Garcia Luna with a notable lack of reserve, given past letdowns.
"He wants to create -- clean the slate and create an entirely new professional force that will take the Mexican security apparatus into the 21st century," said a senior U.S. law enforcement official. "I think he's the real deal."
Critics weigh in
Most everyone agrees that Mexico cannot win the war it has declared against powerful crime organizations unless it cleans up its police, whose members often work on the criminal groups' behalf. But even a determined push probably will take years to succeed.
"The problem is, they're getting started very late," said Bruce Bagley, an international studies professor at the University of Miami. "We will not see the results for five to 10 years."
Some critics see the effort as a lot of media spin by Garcia Luna, who they say is out mainly to expand his authority.
Javier Herrera Valles, a high-ranking federal police official, was stripped of his duties this year after openly criticizing Garcia Luna.
"There is no strategy. There is no planning work. There is no intelligence," said Herrera, who had been responsible for overseeing the crime fight around the country. "The only strategy is increasing the number of personnel."
That, he and other critics say, has thrust the 5,000 federal police officers into risky operations for which they are not prepared and in which they are often outgunned. In May, eight federal officers died in Culiacan during a lengthy shootout with more powerfully armed gunmen.
An authentic effort to clean up corruption probably would please ordinary Mexicans, who tend to view the police as little more than criminals with badges.
That sentiment was captured neatly in a recent cartoon in the Reforma newspaper: Two officers, guns drawn, are poised outside a front door. One asks his partner, "Is this a rescue operation or a kidnapping?"
Officers now have to pass lie detector and psychological tests and undergo reviews of their personal finances, criminal records and family ties. Those sorts of checks are de rigueur for candidates trying to get hired in agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Department.
Those tests are fine by Gerardo Avila, a 28-year-old medical school graduate who was recently interviewing for a job in the Federal Police.
Avila said he wanted to put his expertise as a surgeon to work as a police trainer.
Wearing neatly gelled hair and a dark-blue suit, Avila said the image of police could use some reconstructive surgery.
"It's an image of distrust," he said outside a recruiting tent on the new Federal Police campus.
"This is what you have to change so people have trust, whether it be to report a crime or even to help."