Veracruz police disbanded: many in Mexico won't notice

The Mexican city's 1,100-member police force has just been fired, with the Navy put in charge of civilian security. Many in Veracruz won't miss the cops, whom they distrust.

Felix Marquez/AP
A masked Mexican navy marine keeps custody of police vehicles outside of a police station after the entire police force was disbanded in the Gulf port city of Veracruz, Mexico Wednesday. The Veracruz state government said the decision is part of an effort to root out police corruption and start from zero in the state's largest city. The navy will be in charge of patrolling the city for the time being.

Veracruz state has just announced it is disbanding the entire police force in the port city of Veracruz and is putting the Mexican Navy in charge of day-to-day police operations.

The move, says state spokeswoman Gina Dominguez, is part of an ongoing state and federal effort to clean up corrupt institutions. The lay-offs include 800 officers and 300 administrative staff.  

In Mexico's bloody fight against organized crime, this is not the first time that local police forces have been replaced by the armed forces or federal police. Local authorities are often outgunned by traffickers, or worse, moonlighting for them.

Imagine an entire police force in a major US city being fired. A sense of chaos would ensue. But in Mexico, most will just shrug. Police here are widely distrusted, seen as part of the problem, not the solution. Instead of seeking their help in time of need, many run as far away as possible.

I was recently in Veracruz, writing a narrative of how one family's life is affected by drug violence. I asked the family: if something were to happen to you, a relative's kidnapping for example, would you call the police? They looked at me like I was joking: of course they wouldn’t.

What would they do then? They might reach out to the Navy, if they could. But probably they would rely on their network of friends and family, seeking justice among themselves, trying to keep authorities out of the situation as much as possible.

“Why would I call the police? They are not going to resolve anything, and they probably will make the situation worse,” Carolina Gomez, the protagonist of the piece, told me. "They won't solve the case, and then they will end up with all of my data, my name, my address, my telephone number."

I worry about cops, too

For a reporter, organized crime's penetration of the police force, poses different problems. Writing a story about security, you must talk to the authorities in charge of preserving citizen safety. But where to go in Mexico? I tried the police in Veracruz, but my interview request went nowhere. I didn't want to just pop in, as I might in the US. For starters, the very person you don't want knowing that you're a reporter in town might be the cop at the front desk. A few local police booths had also recently been attacked by gunmen. Not the safest place to be.

I opted to reach out to the Navy, who had just been called in by the federal government to help secure Veracruz from drug violence. I spent a day on a ride-along with them patrolling waters around the fishing town of Alvarado, near where the Papaloapan River feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. There, the navy explained, drug traffickers have been moving narcotics and weapons. They carried out spot checks on the rickety boats that ply the waters here.

I was frustrated not to have spoken to the police, as a reporter always is, but in retrospect I'm glad. I very easily may have quoted someone who, a month later, was fired for being part of the problem.

Unfortunately, it would not have been the first time that has happened to me, or others.

Crime and politics

Take this cover story that I did on the US-Mexico border. At the time we were seeking to find out how much “spillover violence” was a reality. We based the story in Palomas, among the most deadly in Mexico at the time. It sits across from tranquil Columbus, New Mexico

For that report I interviewed the then-mayor of Columbus, Eddie Espinoza, who talked about how "spill over violence" was a political ploy and that he was against having the National Guard stationed in his town. He said this was small-town America, not the site of a battle between Mexican criminals.

That might be true, but a couple years later he was arrested and accused of being part of a drug smuggling ring.

CNN had another example this year, from reviewing WikiLeaks cables.

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations demanded Mexican action in the wake of the January 2010 killing of activist Josefina Reyes in her hometown near Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Reyes was an outspoken critic of the army's presence in Juarez. She sought to shed light on abuses at the hands of the military.

But a State Department cable shows there is more to her story.

Reyes, according to the cable, was the mother of an alleged Juarez cartel hitman and drug trafficker. US officials concluded that information available to them "suggests that Reyes' murder had more to do with her ties to organized crime than her work with human rights organizations."

In fact, Reyes became an activist against the military only after her son was detained by the army in 2008, the cable states. She considered his detention a kidnapping.

Sinaloa cartel gunmen were behind her killing, the cable states. Her son, Miguel Angel "El Sapo" Reyes Salazar, is a suspected hitman for the rival Juarez cartel.

More than a year later, the bodies of three of Josefina Reyes' relatives were found dumped near a gas station.

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