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Mexico boosts police ethics to fight drugs

Local groups are battling police corruption – which fuels drug-trafficking – with programs such as ethics training at Mexico City's police academy.

By Staff writer / May 22, 2008

Troubles: Officers in Mexico's police force, which is battling drug trafficking and corruption, honored recently slain colleagues in Mexico City this month.

Gregory Bull/AP


Mexico City

Angel Augusto Nuñez, a police cadet, knows that cops have a bad rap in Mexico.

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And as fresh violence has swept the nation's police force into the center of the drug war – with the unprecedented slaying of at least four high-ranking officers this month – new questions about how many officers are colluding with drug dealers and how effective police efforts are have battered its reputation once more.

At least one slaying was allegedly coordinated by a federal police officer working for drug traffickers. Many local police have resigned. Some have reportedly even sought asylum in the United States.

But Mr. Nuñez is determined to do his part to rebuild confidence in an institution that ranks among society's least trusted. On a recent day, in a hardscrabble neighborhood of Mexico City, he is one of 142 students in a yearlong program at a police academy called the Professional Training Institute (PTI) established to raise the standards of the city's judicial police.

"I feel proud to put on this shirt and feel part of this institution," Nuñez says, before heading out to join his colleagues in calisthenics.

The challenge to stem Mexico's drug violence – which analysts increasingly compare to the situation in Colombia – escalated this month when the acting national police chief was killed at his home in Mexico City. President Felipe Calderón has vowed to fight on, but many say no amount of strength will solve the problem if corruption is not first confronted.

As questions about his strategy surface, especially as the US considers a $1.4 billion aid package for Mexican security forces over three years, smaller grass-roots efforts, such as Mexico City's academy and various nongovernmental organizations around the country, are developing accountability standards and corruption controls that many say could help advance the government's efforts.

"If the police were better trained, it would help against infiltration of corruption in the system," says Jose Arturo Yañez, a professor at the academy. "At the federal level, the training doesn't give them time to develop ethics and the spirit of group work learned in the classroom."

Mr. Calderón has made tackling drug violence the cornerstone of his presidency, sending 25,000 soldiers and police across the country. But at least 1,300 have been killed this year, as wars between drug gangs and security forces rage. Usually low paid, cops often moonlight for drug traffickers.

The killing this month of Edgar Millan, the acting national police chief, represents a troubling new challenge because a federal policeman was arrested for coordinating the job, with alleged plans to target more officers.

"The assassination ... was possible thanks to corruption in the police structure; this is the main weakness of Calderón's general strategy," says Erubiel Tirado, director of the national security program at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. "You cannot fight a war like this without a very clean and professional structure."