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Cop show spawns real drama in Mexico

“The Team” aired for three short weeks and never scored high ratings.

It proved one thing, though. Amid sharpening divisions over Mexico’s drug war, even a mediocre cop drama can be fuel on the fire.

The TV series debuted on the private Televisa network in early May and ended Friday, capping 15 prime-time episodes. But the controversy around it may outlast the reruns.

Was the series, featuring a coed team of elite (and muy attractive!) federal officers on the trail of drug traffickers, just an ordinary crime drama? Or was it (cue sinister organ music) an attempt by the government of President Felipe Calderon to secretly win support for his drug war?

The real drama may be just underway, as leftist lawmakers press for an investigation into whether the administration helped bankroll the show to glorify federal police.

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“It’s not just a television series,” said Leticia Quezada, a congresswoman from the Democratic Revolution Party who filed a complaint asking whether the Calderon government invested public funds.

The dust-up is evidence of an intensifying battle to win Mexicans’ hearts and minds as Calderon pursues a long and controversial drug war. A centerpiece of that drive is cleaning up and modernizing the federal police, with 35,000 officers.

Radio spots by the government regularly trumpet captures of drug capos. Police parade suspects as trophies before news cameras.

Recently, a Calderon spokesman, Alejandro Poire, launched a blog to explain the anticrime strategy to wary Mexicans. (This week’s installment: 10 “myths” about the strategy, including, No. 1 on the list, that there is no strategy.) And the president has compared himself to Winston Churchill to argue that yielding is no option.

On the opposite side of the fence, protesters smear themselves with fake blood and blame Calderon — and not the murderous drug gangs — for the nearly 40,000 drug-related deaths since he took office in late 2006.

Mexicans seem conflicted: They tend to favor cracking down on the drug cartels, but aren’t optimistic about winning.

On the face of it, “El Equipo,” or “The Team,” was harmless enough. A four-member squad of federal cops — three men and a woman — chased bad guys using high-tech gizmos and wiles honed through a demanding new training regimen for Mexican cops.

Scenes showed real-life helicopters and secret, state-of-the-art federal police installations in Mexico City. There were shootouts, episode-ending arrests and, naturally, romantic subplots.

So what if scripts carried little more surprise than your average installment of “Scooby-Doo”? Here at last was a flattering look at the work of Mexican police, who in real life can use an image boost.

But that’s where things got sticky.

Calderon’s foes were sure they smelled a rat when the show launched May 9 — a night after a march in Mexico City by tens of thousands of people decrying the death toll.

Critics saw the show as the equivalent of an infomercial for Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, who oversees the federal police and is a favored target of Calderon foes. The left-leaning Proceso magazine, citing sources it did not reveal, reported that Garcia Luna’s agency had invested more than $12 million in the program.

“They’re trying to clean up the image of the police … because they haven’t done a good job,” Quezada said. She asked the federal comptroller’s office to find out whether public resources were used. While federal and state agencies in Mexico frequently buy television spots to tout supposed accomplishments, it would be highly unusual to spend public funds on a dramatic series.

A spokeswoman for the federal police declined to comment, citing the complaint.

The show’s producer, Pedro Torres, said Mexicans’ frustration over safety is born of many years of official corruption and mistrust toward law enforcement. But he said federal police deserved praise for making improvements.

In an interview, Torres scoffed at the idea of “The Team” as propaganda. “The intention was to make a police drama,” he said. He referred questions about federal funding to Televisa, which did not respond to inquiries.

Torres said his production team began discussing the idea three years ago. Plans to air the show were in place long before the May 8 march, he said.

It doesn’t take much to convince conspiracy-minded Mexicans of alleged government plots. The drug war has offered whispers aplenty of hidden hands at work: arrests that may have been staged, accidents that may not have been accidents, dead crime bosses who may, in fact, not be dead.

It’s hard to say whether Mexican cops got any public-relations lift from “The Team.” If not, they can take heart from a new holiday.

Calderon declared Thursday as Mexico’s first-ever “Federal Police Day.”

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com


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