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As Mexico's drug war rages, military takes over for police

Tijuana's anticorruption police chief was fired and replaced with an Army officer Monday, following three days of drug-related violence that left 37 people dead.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 5, 2008

Busted: Mexican soldiers held two suspects Wednesday after arresting them during a raid against drug smuggling gangs in Tijuana, Mexico.

Guillermo Arias/AP

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Mexico City

Even for Mexicans accustomed to ghastly headlines chronicling the country's drug-related violence, the current level of killing in Tijuana causes consternation. Some 200 people have been slain in one month. Last weekend turned into one of the city's deadliest: nearly 40 were killed, four of whom were children, and nine of them beheaded.

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The immediate answer by city officials was to replace Tijuana's public security chief with an Army officer, to "ratify the position that it is with the military ... that security will be restored in Tijuana," said Mayor Jorge Ramos.

Putting Army officers, particularly retired ones, in police positions is nothing new in Mexico. But as President Felipe Calderón has declared war on drug traffickers, dispatching troops across the country, the cooperation between the military and local law enforcement is at new highs. And responses like the one in Tijuana are a logical – albeit controversial – evolution as the military rotates troops in and out of affected towns and cities across the country.

"Because the military is taking more responsibility for law enforcement operations ... they have more things to coordinate with the local police," says a senior Mexican official, who, as standard policy, spoke on condition of anonymity. "If the military has a partner in the local police force who speaks their own language, they can work together better."

It's been nearly two years since Mr. Calderón sent more than 20,000 federal authorities and troops to troubled states: from the mountain towns of Michoacan that are ripe for drug production to the dicey border cities along the US-Mexico frontier.

The US formally released on Wednesday the first $197 million of a $400 million aid package to help Mexico in its struggle. The announcement came as Mexico's No. 2 federal prosecutor was gunned down in the violent Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez.

The Mexican government maintains that the military is the best instrument to stem the violence while a strong and uncorrupted police force – another cornerstone of the president's initiative – is being created across the country. But violence has so far only escalated: According to local media counts, which keep death tallies in the absence of government figures, more than 5,000 have been killed in 2008 – double the number for 2007.

Nowhere has violence flared more than in Tijuana, and nowhere has the military had to take on such an active role.

Last month, the government reported that half of police officers who were given standards tests failed; the failure rate was as high as 9 out of 10 in Baja California, where Tijuana is located. At one point, the military briefly disarmed the local police force there and asked residents to report crimes directly to them. Their latest dispatch came last month, when federal troops fanned the area after 500 cops were removed and sent and for retraining.

After last weekend's violence, Tijuana's police chief Alberto Capella, a lawyer and activist appointed 12 months ago to flush the notorious local forces of corruption, was replaced by Lt. Col. Julian Leyzaola, who was the seecond in command. The coronel's new No. 2 is also a military officer.