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Mexicans see a losing battle in the war on crooked police

Investigators check a U.S. diplomatic vehicle attacked by Mexican federal police south of Mexico City. President Felipe Calderon had vowed to create a trustworthy force, but many are scoffing at that idea.
(Nuvia Reyes, AFP/Getty Images)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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But recent events have raised doubt about whether Calderon’s new tree will be any healthier.

A Ciudad Juarez businessman who accused federal police of trying to kidnap him and shake him down for cash was found stabbed to death in his home in April. Ten officers were arrested in September on suspicion of extortion and other crimes, and are in custody awaiting trial.

The airport shootout in June pitted officers against officers. One group was attempting to arrest another on suspicion of involvement with an international cocaine smuggling operation. The suspects shot and killed three of the responding officers. Police officials have been criticized for confronting dangerous suspects at the busy airport, and for arresting only one of the three suspects.

The latest attack occurred Friday when an armored SUV carrying the Americans and a Mexican navy officer were confronted by a vehicle on a dirt road near the highway that connects Mexico City with the popular tourist destination of Cuernavaca.

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According to the Mexican navy, passengers in the intercepting vehicle showed their arms, and when the driver of the Americans’ SUV tried to evade them, they opened fire. The SUV was eventually chased by four vehicles, and reportedly was hit by more than 30 bullets.

The 12 detained officers are suspected of the crime of “abuse of authority.” But neither the Mexican nor the U.S. government has clarified whether the attack was an act of crooked police or brazen and bumbling ones. Families of the detained officers have said the police were investigating a kidnapping in the area.

Despite such incidents, Robert C. Bonner, a former administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and a former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said Calderon has made real progress in changing the culture of the federal police.

Incidents of corruption were practically inevitable, given the pervasiveness of the cartels and their cash. Most important, he said, will be whether Mexican officials carry through with punishment of officers found to be dirty.

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PHOTOS: U.S. diplomatic vehicle attacked by Mexican federal police

“It’s really important that the government take swift action against those who’ve gone to the dark side, if you will,” said Bonner, now the senior principal of the Sentinel HS Group, a Vienna, Va.-based consulting firm. " And I see that happening in Mexico in a way you wouldn’t see 10 or 15 years ago.”

But observers like Carlos Puig say Mexicans remain unconvinced. In a column in the newspaper Milenio, Puig noted that Calderon’s public safety secretary used to go to public meetings at the beginning of the president’s term and ask: “How many of you here would like your kids to be police?”

Back then, few or none would raise their hands.

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“I’m afraid that six years later, if the secretary were to ask the same question in front of a citizen audience,” Puig wrote, " he’d receive the same answers as before.”

richard.fausset@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez and Daniel Hernandez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.


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