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Setbacks in Mexico's war on corruption

President Felipe Calderón's government has made a series of moves to clean up the country's police force. Results are open to interpretation.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 2008

Drug violence: Police tape surrounded a crime scene earlier this month in Tijuana. The city's security secretary was fired Dec. 1 after 37 people were killed in three days.

Guillermo Arias/AP


Mexico City

On Friday, Mexico's government announced that an Army officer was arrested on suspicion that he sold information about President Felipe Calderón's movements to drug cartels, the closest official to the president to be arrested thus far.

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It was another embarrassing setback for Mr. Calderón, who has made the battle against drug trafficking a cornerstone of his presidency since taking office two years ago. He has employed the military to lead the fight, particularly where the local forces are, at best, ineffectual and, at worst, in collusion with drug cartels. He also promised to modernize and clean up the police force with a series of training courses, incentives, and trust tests.

Calderón has been hailed for his gumption, but corruption cases have reached the highest ranks. Now, many Mexicans are concerned that the military could become as corrupt as the law enforcement agencies, and police reform experts say Calderón's strategy is not going far enough to address long-term institutional shortcomings.

"The efforts, which are good, will have no good results if they don't work at the same time on creating institutional accountability systems," says Ernesto Lopez Portillo, a leading expert on police reform and executive director of the Institute for Security and Democracy (Insyde) in Mexico City.

Police reform: no small task

In 2008, the number of those killed in drug-related violence rose to over 5,300 – double the number tallied the year before.

In some cities, such as Tijuana, the military has temporarily taken over for police forces widely believed to be colluding with local drug traffickers.

Police reform is an enormous task, especially when participating in the $40 billion drug trade becomes far more profitable than the average $375 monthly wage for police officers.

One of the first moves the Calderón administration made was to start consolidating the two federal police forces under one unit, headed by the nation's top security director Genaro Garcia Luna.

He has opened a sleek new police campus in Mexico City, beefed up training and recruitment, and has begun to connect the country's disparate police forces in one database to improve intelligence-gathering and efficiency.

The government has also not shied away from condemning those snared in stings.

In June 2007, 284 federal officers were purged from the force and sent back to training. In recent months, after Calderón launched Operation Clean House, more than a dozen high-ranking cops and authorities have been netted. Among the most shocking: Noe Ramirez, a former head of the anti-organized crime unit in the attorney general's office, on charges that he received $450,000 from drug traffickers in exchange for intelligence.