With murders of 475 Mexican cops this year, rule of law dies, too

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 15, 2010 

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — When gangsters kill a police officer — or even three of them — it rarely makes news in this violent border city.

What's worse, hardly anyone seems to mourn fallen cops.

When officers are gunned down, as they have been 65 times so far this year in this city alone, and 475 times across the nation just through October, many citizens think it's because they're crooked or mixed up with drug cartels.

So on a recent day, the fate of municipal police Officers Pedro Ramos, Mayra Ibarra and Osvaldo Rodriguez as they sat in a parked police pickup caused little stir in these parts, and wasn't worthy of a front-page article in either major newspaper.

The officers were patrolling in the San Felipe del Real district of this city of 1.3 million people. They pulled up to an elementary school, and a fourth officer hopped out to get a signature on a log to show that the cops had made their rounds.

The other three, all relatively inexperienced, made a tactical error that cost them their lives. They sat in the double-cabin pickup, enclosed and barely able to fire back when gangsters in two vehicles pulled up and squeezed the triggers on assault weapons.

After the shooting stopped, the police vehicle rolled a hundred yards down a hill and rammed a telephone pole. Inside, all three officers were slumped over dead.

A neighbor came out and placed a white sheet over the cabin. Cell phones on the slain officers' bodies chirped with greater insistence as the minutes ticked by. Investigators at the scene counted 45 spent shells, most of them from AK-47 variant weapons favored by the drug gangs that roam the city.

When word of the hit spread, dozens of state and federal law enforcement agents flooded in, taping off several blocks and patrolling neighboring streets in search of the gunmen. That's when this reporter arrived. A blast of automatic-weapons fire crackled several blocks away and police sprinted toward it.

"Run! Up there!" a neighbor said, fearful that a gunfight would break out.

Hidden in an alleyway, a 17-year-old youth with closely cropped black hair and a gold earring said he felt no sympathy for the slain officers. The cops are all corrupt, he asserted.

"The federal police carry out kidnappings. The municipal police do armed robberies," he said, declining to give his name for fear of reprisals.

A municipal public security bureau spokesman, Adrian Sanchez, said he didn't know the motive of the assailants but he denied that the victims were corrupt.

"This attack was part of the struggle between good people and bad people," he said.

Observers and citizen advocates acknowledge that police officers get little respect in Mexico. Underpaid, under-trained and facing severe threat from powerful organized-crime groups, cops often see their jobs as only one step better than unemployment.

"It's like the last option for work for a young person. People say, 'You couldn't find work? Become a policeman,' " said Gustavo de la Rosa, a Chihuahua state human rights ombudsman.

Mexico has multiple law enforcement agencies, including a federal police force of some 33,000, along with 371,000 officers in 2,022 municipal police departments and 32 state police forces. Turnover is sky-high. In the last three and a half years, President Felipe Calderon said on Oct. 6, turnover among state and local police was 106 percent.

In August, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said drug trafficking organizations spent about $100 million a month in bribes to police officers across the nation. He said 60 percent of municipal cops earned less than $317 a month.

"What we have to do is launch a campaign to dignify the profession of being a police officer, to make it a respectable profession," De la Rosa said. "It isn't considered so now. It's considered a temporary job."

Arturo Valenzuela, a gastroenterologist who sits on a municipal citizens' security panel, said more was at stake than saving the lives of police officers.

"When an officer dies, when he is killed, part of the rule of law dies with him. Whether he is good or bad, part of the state's legal authority crumbles," Valenzuela said. "We need to boost them up, train them and support them, even if it is only moral support."

The taint of corruption lingers, though, over local cops. In August, six policemen were charged in the killing of a 38-year-old mayor in the popular tourist town of Santiago, near the industrial city of Monterrey. Seven officers were arrested Tuesday in Zacatecas state, under suspicion of stopping a group of hunters and turning them over to a band of criminals, presumed kidnappers.

In the region surrounding Juarez, elements of different police forces are thought to side either with the Juarez Cartel and its band of enforcers, known as La Linea, or with the rival Sinaloa Federation and its leader, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman. The two groups are in a brutal turf war that's left some 3,000 people dead in Juarez so far this year.

"Right now, La Linea are killing federal police while Shorty's people are killing state police. People from La Linea and Shorty are killing different groups within the municipal police, and sometimes they kill police indiscriminately to send a message to the governor or the mayor," De la Rosa said.

"The police are just cannon fodder," he added. "Police are convinced that they are condemned to die."

Hundreds of them die each year. From the time Calderon came to office in late 2006 through the end of October, 782 municipal police officers were assassinated nationwide, according to the National Center for Planning, Analysis and Information for Combating Crime, a Mexican federal agency. Hardly any of the killings led to arrests and successful prosecutions.

In that same period, only 103 army troops were killed, the agency's figures show.

Calderon is on a quest for police reform, emphasizing that the officers are on the front lines against organized crime. In a move to create a unified federal command and set standards for training and pay, Calderon sent a bill to Congress on Oct. 6 that would place federal police in charge of all levels of police in Mexico.

"One of the most important challenges that Mexico has today is to give police a new profile," Calderon said. Local police forces are "the most vulnerable, the easiest to locate, the most easy to buy off, subject to intimidation and vengeance by criminals that act with impunity in many areas of the nation."

Many of the killings of Juarez police have the appearance of targeted hits.

In the slaying of the three officers Dec. 8, vehicles followed their white-and-blue pickup before firing a blaze of bullets. According to the newspaper El Diario, one of the officers was three months pregnant. Only four days earlier, another police vehicle had been ambushed, leaving three policemen and a policewoman dead.

Both massacres occurred within sight of the border to El Paso, Texas, which is considered the safest U.S. metropolitan area with a population of more than 500,000. The last time a cop was shot and killed in the U.S. city was Sept. 25, 2004. The officer, Angel Barcena, is still memorialized on the El Paso Police Department's website.

Juarez, too, has a memorial to fallen police, a bronze statue of an officer looking down at the hat of a slain colleague. But plaques with the names of murdered officers have been pried away and stolen.

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