Mexico’s besieged police put to the test

Calderon vows to press war on cartels despite the body count

Armored Vehicles guard entrance to MexicoMEXICO CITY — Mexico’s security forces have been swept into the eye of the storm since President Felipe Calderon decided to get tough on the country’s drug-smuggling gangs.

Once-untouchable federal officials have been assassinated in the streets. Out-gunned soldiers and police have battled gangsters armed with grenades and bazookas. Local police chiefs have resigned, a few fleeing to the United States for safety. Hundreds of police and soldiers have been sent early to their graves.

Amid a fierce counteroffensive by the drug cartels, the question becomes: How long can, or will, Mexico’s thin police line hold?

Calderon and his top assistants say the security forces are up to the task. The gunfights and killings, including the assassinations this month of four top police officials, are signs of success rather than defeat, they say.

“This reaction is precisely a desperate act to weaken the federal police,” Calderon said, defending his policies and trying to rally the public to support them. “The effectiveness of a new, cleaned-up police force was hitting the criminals. We’re going to continue this frontal attack.”

But Bush administration officials, pushing Congress to approve a $1.4 billion, three-year package of equipment and training for Mexico’s security forces, warn that Calderon’s campaign will founder without the aid.

Analysts on both sides of the border worry that Mexico’s underequipped and poorly trained police forces — with long histories of ineffectiveness and corruption — will come up short.

“There comes a moment when the imbalance in resources reverses the relationship between government and cartels,” George Friedman, founder of Strategic Forecasting, an Austin political risk firm, wrote in a report on Mexico’s drug war this week.

“Government officials, seeing the futility of resistance, effectively become tools of the cartels.”

A relatively new twist
Other analysts point out that many Mexican policemen and officials have long been at the cartels’ service. They argue that much of today’s sustained violence against police — a relatively new twist in the country’s decades-long dance with the drug trade — arises from a fragmentation of a protection system that existed for decades.

Hundreds of dedicated police and soldiers have been killed over the years in the line of duty. But for much of the past, authorities and gangsters preferred their relationships to be defined by business rather than bloodshed.

Officials were killed if they welched on a deal with the criminals. They rarely were targeted for simply doing their jobs.

“They didn’t have to kill the police before, because the agreements were clear, and the limits were well defined,” said Ernesto Lopez Portillo, president of a Mexico City think tank that studies police and public security.

That has changed since the presidential elections of 2000 ended seven decades of one-party rule and shook the protection that it afforded the country’s gangsters, Lopez Portillo said.

Political power, and the cover it can provide drug traffickers, has splintered among the federal, state and local governments.

At the same time, a reorganization of the federal security forces, including the replacement of the notoriously corrupt Federal Judicial Police with a quasi-military force, has made enforcement more effective. Narcotics use has ballooned in Mexico, while smuggling organizations grew more powerful and more competitive with one another.

Now, each cartel has its own protection system, often based on the guns of local and state police. Many crime bosses also employ gunmen who until recently were active-duty soldiers.

Gangs’ firepower and vendettas have multiplied. Police have been caught in the crossfire. Chaos reigns.

“All the old alliances have broken down,” said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami political scientist who specializes in the Latin American drug trade. “And they are striking back against cops, many of whom are dirty. The whole process has been thrown into flux.”

Calderon has ordered nearly 30,000 soldiers and quasi-military police into the fight against the cartels. The offensive has proved ineffective in stopping the trafficking of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin to American consumers. But more than 3,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the 18 months since Calderon became president.

The dead include about 300 federal, state and local police. Some have been killed by rivals of the gangsters who employed them. Many others were slain doing their jobs.

“There have been, obviously, very lamentable losses on our side,” Calderon told reporters this week. “But fortunately Mexico has many patriots like them.”

Calderon insists he is determined to press the crackdown, regardless of the body count. He has asked Congress for a five-fold increase in the budget of the federal police, to be used in large part to build new regional bases across the country.

“We will continue building a better federal police, which this country has severely needed,” Calderon said. “We’re not going to add to the abandonment, the cowardice or the complicity that allowed Mexico to arrive at this situation.”
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