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.
Mexican police traditionally have had little or no training and are paid low salaries that make them vulnerable to corruption. Calderon launched his attack on organized crime in 2006 with the army because he said it was his most reliable force. Since then, he has expanded federal police from 6,000 to 35,000 with recruits who are fully vetted and better trained and paid. But even federal forces still have problems.
Ten federal police officers were arrested in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez in September for running an extortion ring.
Mexico's army has taken over police operations elsewhere several times before, notably in Ciudad Juarez and the northern border state of Tamaulipas.
There was so little confidence in Ciudad Juarez police that two years ago, business groups there called for United Nations peacekeepers to quell the drug-related violence.
Tijuana, with what's known as one of Mexico's most corrupt police forces, has seen grandiose gestures aimed at restoring public confidence. In January 2007, federal authorities confiscated officers' firearms for ballistics tests to identify links to organized crime. Some officers carried slingshots in protest while waiting for their guns to be returned.
Starting in December 2007, 270 Tijuana officers on a force of about 2,500 were fired under suspicion of having links to organized crime, with 199 facing criminal proceedings. The effort was led by Julian Leyzaola, who was police director and later public safety chief from 2007 to 2010 and is now the top cop in Ciudad Juarez.
Since December 2010, 46 Tijuana officers have been fired for suspected criminal ties, officials say.
But Veracruz this week became the first Mexican state to completely disband a large police department and use marines as law enforcers. Even Calderon has conceded the Zetas have seized control of the state.
Duarte had already disbanded a police force in the state's capital of Xalapa, but in that case state agents immediately replaced city police.
Veracruz is a common route for drugs and migrants coming from the south on the way up to the United States. It was first dominated by the Gulf cartel, and then its former armed wing, the Zetas, took over after splitting from the cartel. The state saw a rise in crime this spring after a government offensive in neighboring Tamaulipas pushed drug criminals into Veracruz.
The port since has turned into a battleground between the Zetas and a gang aligned with the Sinaloa cartel, which is led by kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The war in Veracruz reached a bloody peak in September when 35 bodies were dumped on a main highway in rush-hour traffic.
Less than a month later, authorities announced the firing of nearly 1,000 Veracruz state police officers for failing their tests.
Associated Press writers Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City; Porfirio Ibarra in Monterrey, Mexico, and Elliot Spagat in Tijuana, Mexico, contributed to this report.
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