Mexico port city police infiltrated by Zetas gang

By E. Eduardo Castillo

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 22 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

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 Dec. 21, 2011. 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.

Felix Marquez, Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — It has come to this: firing an entire police force in a major Mexican port city.

Police in Veracruz-Boca del Rio had become so infiltrated, mainly by the Zetas drug cartel according to one military official, that government officials had no choice but to take the most drastic measure yet against corrupt police in Mexico.

President Felipe Calderon has found out, some say too late, that one of the biggest obstacles to his five-year crackdown on organized crime is the local police, who are often in the employ of drug traffickers.

Since he took office in December 2006, soldiers have seized police weapons in the border city of Tijuana to see if they were used in crimes, and police, sometimes entire forces, are routinely fired or forced out.

Still, Wednesday's move to fire 800 officers and 300 administrative personnel in the Gulf coast city of 700,000 was unprecedented.

Countless efforts to reform police under Calderon and previous administrations have failed. Police have been arrested as suspects in the most egregious organized crime attacks on civilians. Those include mass graves discovered last spring in the border state of Tamaulipas and a casino fire in the northern city of Monterrey that killed 52 in August.

Distrust between local and federal law enforcement has led to armed standoffs and even shootouts between the two.

"We lack the mechanisms for public security, and the situation continues despite the investment of million of pesos in the past," said Miguel Sarre, a security expert at Mexico's Autonomous Institute of Technology. "It's an issue that lacks recognition and commitment on the part of the governors."

The Mexican navy says training new officers to replace the 800 dismissed in Veracruz city will likely take 10 months.

"It was a fairly high percentage of people infiltrated or in collusion," said the armed forces official, who could not be named for security reasons. He did not mention specifics but added that many were threatened into service of the drug cartels and had no choice.

About 800 marines, or navy infantry, will patrol Veracruz, which has one of Mexico's largest commercial ports, the official said.

Veracruz state government officials, meanwhile, disputed that the firing had to do with corruption. Gov. Javier Duarte and federal Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire agreed to the change Monday.

Duarte spokeswoman Gina Dominguez said the dismissal was designed to meet a state and federal agreement to build new police forces certified under stricter standards by January 2013.

None of the dismissed employees are under investigation for corruption, and all can reapply for their jobs, she said.

They'll be required to undergo a rigorous new program of testing and background checks.

"The police force was created under previous administrations and the governor wanted to renovate the force with new police certified at a national level that elicit the confidence of citizens," Dominguez said.

Calderon, who leaves office in December 2012, has promised to create a secure police force. To root out corruption, the federal government has been pushing an elaborate process for vetting all of Mexico's 460,000 police officers, starting with polygraphs, psychological and toxicology tests and personal and medical background checks.

According to federal figures, only 19 percent have been vetted so far, and only 9 percent of the total passed.

In Veracruz, 14 percent of state police and 6 percent of municipal police had been evaluated as of the end of the September. The number who passed was not available.

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