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.

Guillermo Arias/AP
Busted: Mexican soldiers held two suspects Wednesday after arresting them during a raid against drug smuggling gangs in Tijuana, Mexico.
Alejandro Bringas/Reuters
Burned: Soldiers Tuesday watched marijuana being destroyed in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.
Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

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.

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.

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."

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.

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