MEXICO CITY — There it was on video: Five heavily armed policemen barge into a hotel in western Mexico before dawn and march out with three handcuffed men in underwear.
But police weren't making an arrest. Prosecutors say they apparently were taking orders from criminals. Just hours after the three were seized, they were found asphyxiated and beaten to death.
Mexicans have become inured to lurid tales of police collaboration with narcotics gangs during 51/2 years of a drug war that has cost more than 47,500 lives. But seldom can they actually see it occur, and the video broadcast on national television was a shocker.
"One assumes that in some cities ... the municipal police work for the drug cartels," said Jorge Chabat an expert on security and drug trafficking at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching. "But what is different here is that there is a video. It's not the same thing to imagine that this going on, and to see it."
While the kidnapping and murder occurred in January, and the faces of several officers were clearly seen on the videos, the officers were not detained until June 6, when soldiers and state police raided a local police station. And they still have not been formally charged with any crime.
"It took time to obtain the video tapes, to do the investigation, and to get the arrest warrants," said Jalisco state prosecutor's spokesman Lino Gonzalez said Thursday. "We didn't have the information."
Police are investigating whether the gunmen who order the police throughout the tape belong to the New Generation cartel based in western Jalisco state where the kidnapping occurred. The gang is aligned with powerful fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
The delayed arrests came less than three weeks before national elections in which security and corruption are major issues. The municipality, Lagos de Moreno, is run by Mayor Jose Brizuela, a politician for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, who is running for state office in the July 1 national elections. The PRI looks poised to regain the presidency in a race where all parties are trading accusations of corruption and collusion with organized crime.
Brizuela couldn't be reached for comment Monday. The rival National Action Party, which has touted previous cases of local PRI government officials accused of corruption, had no immediate comment, said Guillermo Quiroga, spokesman for the PAN state party in Jalisco state.
Local police corruption is rampant in local governments across political parties.
Thousands of Mexico's 460,000 officers, including entire forces at times, have been fired, detained or placed under investigation for allegedly aiding drug gangs. President Felipe Calderon's plan to vet them has moved slowly, with only 8 percent passing background checks and tests as of the end of 2011.
The Jan. 20 video released by prosecutors late Wednesday shows a police truck pulling up to the hotel in the city of Lagos de Moreno, quickly followed by a pickup carrying four armed men in civilian clothing. A city policeman carrying an assault rifle runs over to their truck and is given what appears to be a list. Then he and his fellow officers trot into the hotel and present the list at the reception desk, apparently asking what rooms the men are staying in.
In the next segment of the video, the victims are trotted out of the hotel in their underwear with their hands cuffed behind their backs. One is being hustled along by a man in civilian dress, who stuffs him into a patrol car. The gunmen — police are investigating whether they belong to the Jalisco New Generation drug gang — appear to be calling the shots throughout, with the police officers serving as gofers.
The police then watch and wait in front of the hotel while the men's luggage and vehicle are stolen. Finally, the police truck carrying the victims follows the gunmen as they drive away in the own pickup and the stolen vehicle.
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