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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.

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Over the past several decades, military members have taken on police roles, especially when retired from the institution. "The difference is now they are active officers. They are still under the chain of command of the Army," says Jorge Luis Sierra, an expert on the use of the Mexican military in anti-narcotics missions and author of "The Internal Enemy." "It's like the Army taking direct control of police organizations."

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Mr. Sierra says he believes the trend has and will accelerate under Calderon, particularly in troubled spots.

Today, with the spotlight the military has in the antinarcotics effort, the cooperation between the military and federal government is as well-coordinated as ever. "Before, when [military officers] were retired, they came [to police departments] on their own. Today it is more of an organized process," says the senior Mexican official. "It is not a boiler plate solution. [But] in certain specific cases like in Tijuana it makes sense."

Today, both active and retired members of the military are taking control of police forces, at the same time that troops are temporarily taking over police departments while corruption is tackled. "The high command can control all the operations in terms of public security," Sierra says, and he calls that risky.

Mexico's governors and city officials have not responded uniformly to the plan. At least three governors have asked the military for help and replaced state public security officials with military leaders, particularly where violence is at its worst. In other cases, they have rejected the military presence, fearing that it will lead to more violence.

"If the military comes in, for a lot of governors, it would be the equivalent of outsourcing security, of admitting you don't have the capacity to confront the threat," says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico expert and head of the Washington-based consulting firm Peschard-Sverdrup & Associates. On the other hand, he says, especially where the narcotraffickers have control, "it's the safest political thing to do. The military is highly regarded and the governor is seen as doing the best he can do."

The government says that one reason the military has been employed is that the firepower of drug traffickers far exceeds that of the local police. But the military also has its own deficiencies, which could be hampering the effort, says Roderic Camp, a Mexican military expert at Claremont McKenna College. "Their function is not as a police force. They don't have the kind of vehicles that chase civilian criminals," he says.

The military is considered less corruptible than police for a number of reasons: they undergo constant training in a way that local enforcement does not. They are also deployed far from their homes, and often rotated, so that they find less opportunity for collusion. Because they are often deployed away from their families, they are also less susceptible to intimidation by drug traffickers. "The military has been much more immune to corruption and to being assassinated by drug traffickers," says Mr. Camp.

Perhaps the main reason they have been less corruptible is that they've been removed from the actual problem. Now that they are on the front lines, some worry they run the risk of being corrupted by the very traffickers they are trying to control, and have already been condemned for a series of human rights violations by Mexico's national human rights office.

"When the Army is in a state, the local media has a lower opinion of the Army, and citizens in general have a lower opinion. Strong support for the Army is where they are not," says Dan Lund, a pollster and political analyst in Mexico City for the MUND Group.