Federal authorities have issued an arrest warrant for a state police commander and detained 13 of his officers for questioning in the apparently drug-related slayings of 11 men in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s attorney general said Thursday.
The men’s bodies were dug up over the last week in the border city, prompting a federal investigation of the Juarez drug-smuggling cartel and the Chihuahua state police force. The 13 cops, members of an anti-drug unit called the Orion Group, were taken into custody as they reported for duty Wednesday.
Their boss, Miguel Angel Loya, was being sought along with three other officers. Until he went into hiding last weekend, Loya was one of four regional commanders of the state police, in charge of Juarez and other cities in northern Chihuahua.
Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha told reporters that all 17 officers were being investigated “for the clandestine burial of bodies and the murder and kidnap of individuals that we know were ordered” by the Juarez cartel.
It was the confession of an alleged hit man that drew President Vicente Fox’s government deeper into the policing of Juarez, a city of 2.1 million people that is already infamous for a string of unsolved rape-murders of impoverished young women.
Federal prosecutors said the 11 men whose remains were uncovered behind a house were victims of a gang war between the Juarez cartel and rivals in Mexico’s lucrative trade in U.S.-bound Colombian cocaine. Alejandro Garcia, who rented the house, reportedly confessed that he helped kill and bury the men on the orders of a cartel operative and a state police official.
The case has caused an uproar in Juarez, with scores of people converging on the morgue to identify lost loved ones. Many more bodies -- of men killed in drug violence and women slain after being raped -- are thought to be buried under the city and in the surrounding desert.
“What kind of security can we demand if the police themselves are accomplices to crime?” said Mariela Ramos, speaking for a women’s rights group in Juarez.
The Assn. of Relatives and Friends of the Disappeared has compiled a list of 196 missing people. “The police are doing almost nothing to find them,” said Maria Caraveo, whose brother Antonio, 43, vanished a year ago.
Federal intervention has brought some hope. At the request of the relatives group, authorities this week ordered three other Juarez properties excavated. They also said Fox would create a special prosecutor’s office to investigate the killings of as many as 137 women in the city.
Chihuahua police spokesman Mauro Conde said state authorities had fired 300 officers over the last two years in an effort to root out corruption.
But Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a federal prosecutor, said the national government decided to intervene because the state force was still populated by “delinquents disguised as public servants, at the service of the drug traffickers.”
Times staff writer Lianne Hart in Ciudad Juarez contributed to this report.