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Police chief resigns in Mexican town plagued by violence

MEXICO CITY—In a new sign of turmoil on the violence-racked Mexican border, the police chief in Nuevo Laredo has resigned and authorities have quietly replaced the military general in charge of law enforcement, officials confirmed Thursday.

The changes came a week after the administration of President Vicente Fox blamed corrupt elements of the city police force for a spectacular attack that killed four federal intelligence agents last week. A Fox spokesman indicated that the hit men were aligned with a drug cartel.

Police Chief Omar Pimentel, in the job for only eight months, resigned Wednesday night and the mayor accepted his resignation, said city spokesman Marco Antonio Martinez. Pimentel was the successor to Alejandro Dominguez, who was gunned down last summer on his first day in the job.

Officials named a temporary replacement Thursday and said patrols would continue uninterrupted.

Also Thursday, a spokesman for the Federal Preventative Police (known here as the PFP) confirmed that Gen. Alvaro Moreno Moreno, who had been leading law enforcement efforts in Nuevo Laredo since last summer, had been replaced on March 14 without official announcement by Gen. Hector Sanchez Gutierrez. Knight Ridder reported last week that Moreno hadn't been seen in the city for weeks as violence and suspicions of police corruption grew.

Nuevo Laredo, just 2 { hours south of San Antonio, Texas, is at the center of a war between two drug cartels competing for access to lucrative distribution routes leading into the United States. Already, 57 people have been slain in gangland-style attacks this year, more than double the number killed during the same period last year.

Late last week, only a day after authorities sent in some 600 reinforcements from the PFP, suspected traffickers gunned down four federal agents dressed in civilian clothes in a brazen afternoon attack. Ruben Aguilar, a spokesman for the president, said evidence pointed to involvement by corrupt city police officers.

Weeding out cartel corruption among some 700 municipal police had been Pimentel's top goal. He fired at least half of the officers and promised to create a less corrupt, more professional force.

In an interview last week with Knight Ridder, Pimentel said he considered his job a "professional challenge" but acknowledged that he had made little headway in recruiting new police officers because of the hazards associated with the job. He gave no clue that he was on the way out, but said he was concentrating on preventing petty crimes and leaving the drug-trafficking investigations to federal law enforcement.

"We are 100 percent preventing crime," he said. "I would invite American tourists to come here. We are always going to be taking care of them, protecting them, so that nothing happens to them, so that they don't get their personal items or their vehicles robbed."

Pimentel entered the job just as Mexican authorities sent hundreds of federal agents to Nuevo Laredo under the leadership of Gen. Moreno. But last week, with the violence spinning out of control, authorities renamed the security program—from "Secure Mexico" to "Northern Border"—and replaced Moreno.

Moreno had left quietly weeks earlier, officials told Knight Ridder. His departure came amid Mexican media reports and public statements raising questions about whether the PFP forces sent to restore order under Secure Mexico have themselves been infiltrated by elements of the drug cartels.

PFP spokesman Daniel Popoca said Thursday that Moreno had been rotated out as part of a routine change in the federal police forces, not because of his performance.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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