TIJUANA, Mexico An outspoken general who urged residents to call the Army when they witnessed a murder or drug deal in this crime-stricken border city was ousted Friday after repeatedly chastising police for being corrupt.
As the army's top officer in northwest Mexico, Gen. Sergio Aponte Polito publicized a phone number to field the public's pleas for help, and on Sunday he gave the news media his latest 5,700-word bombshell letter complaining about bad cops.
Such public provocations are extremely out of character for military leaders in Mexico and may have cost the popular Aponte his job.
"As much praise as there is for Aponte standing up, there's a right way and wrong way to do things," said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. "His approach was to shoot from the hip more than was appropriate."
Aponte was reassigned to the Mexico City-based Supreme Military Tribunal and replaced by Gen. Sergio Magana Mier, who was most recently the Army's top commander in Guerrero state. The Defense Secretary said such rotations are common in a press release that also announced transfers of five other generals and dozens of lower-ranking officers.
But the general's fate reflects larger questions in Mexico about how to control drug-fueled violence, which has soared in the years since President Felipe Calderon moved to openly confront the cartels that move cocaine into the United States. Some Mexicans see the police as corrupt and the army as the only hope. But others fear soldiers are overstepping their authority and abusing their power by raiding the homes of suspected criminals.
Aponte led many of the 20,000 troops Calderon dispatched to retake wide swaths of Mexico that were taken over by drug trafficking. And he pushed limits by asserting a dominant crime-fighting role for soldiers in a city where police are considered too ineffective or corrupt to call. He named his phone-in campaign "Nosotros, si vamos," or "Yes, we respond."
"What he's doing is completely unprecedented," Roderic Camp, an expert on the Mexican military at Claremont McKenna College, said recently.
The jowly, silver-haired 64-year-old general speaks in severe tones and writes as if he's inscribing his epitaph. In his latest missive, he declared that he was relieved of four previous assignments because he denounced ties between drug traffickers and public officials, and openly challenged the defense ministry to support him this time.
In another indignant tirade four months ago, he accused police of working for drug lords, bank robbers, migrant smugglers and other criminals and even named officials he called crooked.
Analysts predict his successor will differ in style. The military would continue to exert a high profile, with a leading role in the fight against crime, they said, but without Aponte's knack for confrontation.
"The military is supposed to be a nameless, faceless entity," Shirk said. "It's supposed to be an institution, not about personalities."
Aponte, who declined an interview request from The Associated Press, has claimed many achievements under his command 1,388 people arrested, 539 tons of marijuana seized, 211,000 bullet casings recovered but it's hard to say if he has made Tijuana safer. The city's murder toll hit 285 before the end of July, nearly eclipsing 339 for all of 2007.
Still, his actions are wildly popular in a city worn down by years of escalating violence and failed promises of police overhauls.
"We trust the army because they get the job done," said Maribel Martinez, a hairdresser in a modest neighborhood where the military had an all-night shootout in March to free a kidnapping victim from a home. "People are scared that the police will cause you harm, so no one calls them."
When Aponte first arrived in 2006, Tijuana was suffering a terrifying wave of kidnappings. Aponte set up vehicle checkpoints to search for arms and stripped police of their pistols to test for ballistics.
Some officers protested by brandishing slingshots a striking contrast to drug traffickers armed with AK-47s and grenade launchers. The probe apparently went nowhere; authorities never released results of the ballistics findings.
Aponte shifted course this January, during a gruesome crime spree that included the assassinations of three police commanders, by urging people to report crimes directly to the army. He publicized a phone number and addresses on Yahoo, Hotmail and Gmail.
By April, he said the army had taken about 2,000 reports. Aponte went from a virtual unknown to toast of the town.
Aponte has detractors. Some fault him for failing to offer evidence when he names crooked officials. And Francisco Javier Sanchez, Baja California's human rights ombudsman, said it is illegal for the army to lead the fight against crime unless the government declares a state of siege, which it hasn't.
"The fact that (the army) is fielding complaints, that it is investigating, that it's detaining people on its own all of that is against the law," Sanchez said. "There's a perception that (the army) is our savior. However, I believe it shouldn't be that way. The police should be doing this work."
But few in Tijuana look to the police for answers. Many blame low pay and death threats to any who dare to confront drug traffickers. Tijuana officers earn the equivalent of about US$1,400 a month. Six have died on the job since December, each leaving behind a death benefit of about US$50,000.
Some call for better coordination among disjointed civilian agencies, or even a national police force. Tijuana's 2,400 police officers are the most visible presence, but do not investigate. Detective work falls to the state for murders, kidnappings and robberies and to federal investigators for trafficking in drugs, arms and migrants.
Others recommend a unified national database to prevent corrupt police officers from job-hopping after they are fired.
Alberto Capella, Tijuana's public safety secretary, applauded Aponte's work but said the army alone can't fix the city. He cautions that it will take time for the police to win the public's trust.
"We are fighting two wars," he said. "The first war is inside the police, and the second one is the normal war, outside on the streets, against crime."