Mexico replaced the federal police chiefs from each of the country’s 31 states and the Federal District on Monday, pending polygraph and drug tests to determine whether they are on the right side of the law in the nation’s foundering drug war.
The surprise purge of top leaders of the federal police and an elite federal investigations agency comes as Mexican President Felipe Calderon seeks traction in a 6-month-old campaign against drug traffickers that has neither stemmed killings nor slowed shipments.
Corruption among local, state and federal law enforcement has for years given cover to drug smuggling gangs, now at war over access routes to the United States, and over Mexico’s growing domestic markets.
“Every federal cop is obliged to carry out his post with legality, honesty and efficiency,” Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said at a news conference Monday announcing the housecleaning. “In the fight against crime, we have strategies. One axis of our strategy is to professionalize and purge our police corps.”
The police chiefs were replaced Monday by federal officers who have passed a rigorous screening, Garcia Luna said.
Shortly after taking office in December, Calderon sent the army to work alongside federal police in nine states. But there are growing suspicions that millionaire kingpins continue to buy protection as easily as ever, despite Calderon’s efforts. Half a dozen federal police officers were arrested this month when their army counterparts discovered they’d allowed a cocaine shipment to pass through the Mexicali airport.
About a third of Mexico’s 20,000-member federal police force, which investigates all drug crimes and homicides, is assigned to work alongside the 12,000 soldiers employed in Calderon’s anti-trafficking campaign. That pairing has raised speculation about information being leaked to smugglers and growers.
Street prices in the United States remain stable, suggesting that suppliers continue to smuggle narcotics over the U.S.-Mexico border relatively undisturbed, drug experts say.
With more than 2,000 people killed last year, curbing drug violence emerged as Calderon’s first priority when he took office. The army, with its reputation of being more trustworthy than Mexico’s police agencies, emerged as Calderon’s tool of choice.
But critics worry that Mexico’s army will be the next institution to be tainted by drug profits. American drug users are estimated to spend as much as $65 billion a year, mostly on cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine, commodities largely controlled by Mexican trafficking organizations and their Colombian affiliates.
“Drug trafficking results in a lot of money, and money buys power,” said a senior U.S. counter-drug official. “When you have someone who has a base of operations significant enough to earn millions of dollars a year, it’s not uncommon for them to wield the kind of power to develop circles of protection. Mexico is no exception to that. That’s no secret here. The government of Mexico is well aware.”
Calderon has asked the U.S. to shoulder a larger share of the drug enforcement burden. U.S. officials acknowledge that the war in Iraq has shifted attention and military resources away from drug interdiction in the air and sea shipping zones of Mexico and Central America.
Although Calderon has won credit for facing down drug cartels, uncertainty lingers in Washington over how much help to give Mexico’s law enforcement agencies, particularly in the gathering and sharing of intelligence.
Garcia Luna would not say whether any of the replaced federal officers were being investigated for alleged corruption, or what prompted the government’s decision.
“Any evidence we have will be processed by the attorney general’s office, and, of course, any reference we find will be analyzed and sent to prosecutors,” he said.
Mexican lawmakers on Monday demanded that Calderon’s government present any evidence it has of federal police corruption.
The removed state heads of the federal police, known as the Federal Preventive Police, or PFP, as well as the Federal Investigative Agency, or AFI, will undergo additional training and be subjected to close scrutiny, Garcia Luna said. They will be given polygraph and drug tests, he added, and their financial assets will be examined to see whether they are in line with a public servant’s salary.
Garcia Luna said the new state police chiefs were among 284 federal police officers who began work Monday as replacements. Calderon in March called for new standards in police ethics and discipline, triggering the recall.
“It’s obvious that there are mafias that don’t want things to change,” Garcia Luna said. “In the fight against corruption, we won’t give in to pressures.”
Calderon’s campaign began with a flurry of successes in his home state of Michoacan; TV news broadcasts showed destroyed marijuana and opium poppy fields. But cocaine seizures by the army this year are less than half the amount taken during the same period in 2006. Drug killings continue at last year’s pace.
The PFP was created in 1998, unifying various federal agencies that had specialized jurisdiction over airports, customs, roads and civil unrest. The 5,000-member AFI was created by then-President Vicente Fox in 2001 to replace a corrupt federal police force.
More than 100 AFI agents work under the supervision of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents based in Mexico, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.
Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.