In Mexico's drug wars, police given 'trust test'

Hundreds of police have been suspended in a bid to stem trafficking-related corruption.

In removing nearly 300 top federal police officers, Mexico has taken its boldest stand yet against corruption as it seeks to curtail drug traffickers whose fierce fighting has some calling Mexico the "new" Colombia.

This week, Mexico's public safety secretary, Genaro Garcia Luna, announced that the officers, including all the top regional coordinators from each state, will have to undergo "trust tests." The move targets the bribes, payoffs, and enticements that some officers take from traffickers, allowing the battles for lucrative routes into the US to flourish.

The effort is President Felipe Calderón's latest bid to battle trafficking that has left some 1,300 people dead this year, according to local media tallies. Since taking office in December, the conservative president, who has worked with the US on extraditions of alleged cartel bosses, has sent 24,000 military and police personnel to violent spots in an unprecedented display of power.

Some say this decision acknowledges the severity of corruption and shows a willingness to tackle it head-on. Others see a publicity stunt that follows the same logic as deploying the military to fight trafficking, something they say grabbed headlines but has achieved little.

The 284 officers dismissed come from the Federal Preventive Police and the Federal Agency of Investigation, which work with the military to tackle drug battles that have not only claimed record numbers of people this year but have become ever more gruesome.

Mexican authorities frequently fire or rotate police officers to prevent corruption, but this is the first time that the top officials nationwide have been the targets.

"They are sending a signal that they are trying to clean house," says Ana Maria Salazar, a national-security expert in Mexico City who was the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for drug enforcement policy and support in the Clinton administration. "I think you have to make these dramatic decisions to combat corruption. What they have done is send a message to the rest below that nobody is immune; if they can cut off the heads, they can easily go after all the others."

Mr. Garcia Luna said at a press conference Monday that the decision is part of the national plan to demand ethics, discipline, and transparency in the fight for public security. "We are well aware that the Mexican people are demanding police be honest, clean, and trustworthy," he said. "It's obvious that there are mafias that don't want the situation to change so they can continue to enrich themselves under the protection of corruption and crime."

Under the plan, officers are required to pass drug tests and polygraphs. Their family members and friends could be questioned and their assets examined. A spokesperson at the public security ministry said it is unclear whether those demoted will eventually return to their former posts. None will be fired, however, and they will maintain their ranks while they are investigated.

For some experts, the judgment to cast a wide net is misguided. "They are following the same logic as the military strategy, to suspect everyone," says Irma Sandoval, head of the Laboratory of Documentation and Analysis of Corruption and Transparency at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "There is a culture of suspicion generated.... They go after everyone when what they should be doing is going after the guilty ones."

She says it is a sign that, six months after Mr. Calderón approved military helicopter sweeps over marijuana fields and checkpoints on highways and town roads alike, the operation is failing: They have to target the very people leading the effort.

But the government says it has detained hundreds of gunmen and burned lucrative fields of marijuana.

Its greatest success, experts say, has been the world's biggest seizure of drug cash in March – $207 million stashed in a luxury home in Mexico City.

The US has praised Mexico's efforts. Last week, a former governor in the state of Quintana Roo, accused of smuggling cocaine into the US, was arrested on a US extradition request.

The removal of top police officials could signal a step toward changing the institutional framework of public security in Mexico, Ms. Salazar says, as the Calderón administration seeks to unify the two federal forces under one command.

But many say that no true institutional change is taking place. What really is needed, says Ms. Sandoval, the corruption expert, is more civilian oversight, not unlike citizen police committees in the US.

In the meantime, the temptation for corruption lingers. "Insofar as there is demand for corrupt policemen, these drug guys will channel money as much as possible," says John Ackerman, a legal expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "As long as these narcos [traffickers] have this money, and the policemen are earning these miserable salaries, it's pretty cheap for the narcos to pay them off."

"This does demonstrate initiative and dedication on the part of the government to move things forward," says Jose Maria Ramos, a security expert at the research institute Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana. But he says, new officers still face systemic problems. "The police aren't well paid, they aren't valued, society always criticizes them, so they end up seeking shelter [in the wrong places]," he says. "The new ones could end up doing the same."

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