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Questions after Mexican police open fire on US officials

Members of the Mexican Federal Police opened fire on a US diplomatic car on Friday. Was it mistaken identity or an assassination attempt?

By Correspondent / August 26, 2012

Mexican marines cordon off the site where an armored US embassy SUV was attacked on a road near the town of Tres Marias, on the outskirts of Cuernavaca August 24. Two US police instructors were accidentally shot and wounded by Mexican police early on Friday after being mistaken for criminals, a Mexican government security official said.

Margarito Perez/Reuters

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Mexico City

An attack by members of the Mexican federal police on a US diplomatic vehicle has sparked questions about a force considered critical to the fight against organized crime and may strain relations between Washington and Mexico City.

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The circumstances of Friday’s shooting—which injured two unnamed US officials and a Mexican Navy captain—remain foggy. Experts say what is clear is that Mexican federal police sprayed gunfire at an SUV with diplomatic plates.

“What happened shouldn’t have happened,” says Juan Salgado, a professor of judicial studies at CIDE, a Mexico City-based research center. “This shows there is an important question about the (management) of the federal police.”

President Felipe Calderón has made the federal police a centerpiece of the fight against organized crime in Mexico, boosting the force to more than 36,000 members from 6,000 six years ago. The force, which receives training from the US as part of the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, is intended to be more professional, with tighter controls on its behavior and better vetting of recruits than the regular police.

That's all intended to increase competence and decrease corruption in a police force that's been waging a losing battle against organized crime, largely driven by the drug trade, for years. Yet the shooting of the US diplomatic vehicle and a June 25 shootout between federal police at Mexico City’s international airport suggest the chain of command is broken, Mr. Salgado says.

“The procedures (set up by the reform) are good in theory,” he says. “But at an institutional level, they aren’t being followed.”

Cocaine cop

In the June incident, three federal policemen were killed by fellow officers believed to be trafficking cocaine from South America through the Mexico City International Airport. The federal police recently reassigned all 348 officers working security in the airport to posts in different states.

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