Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Bit by Bit, a Mexican Police Force Is Eradicated

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 |

By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD NY Times

GUADALUPE DISTRITO BRAVOS, Mexico — Her uncle, the mayor who gave her the job nobody else wanted, warned her to keep a low profile, to not make too much of being the last remaining police officer in a town where the rest of the force had quit or been killed.


But in pictures for local newspapers, Érika Gándara, 28, seemed to relish the role, posing with a semiautomatic rifle and talking openly about the importance of her new job.

“I am the only police in this town, the authority,” she told reporters.

Then, two days before Christmas, a group of armed men took her from her home, residents say, and she has not been seen since.

It was an ominous punctuation mark on the wave of terror that has turned this cotton farming town near Texas into a frightened outpost of the drug war. Nearly half of its 9,000 residents have fled, local officials say, leaving block after block of scorched homes and businesses and, now, not one regular police officer.

Far from big, infamous cities like Ciudad Juárez, one of the most violent places in the Americas, the war with organized crime can batter small towns just as hard, if with less notice.


The cotton towns south of Juárez sit in territory disputed by at least two major drug trafficking groups, according to government and private security reports, leading to deadly power struggles. But the lack of adequately trained police officers, a longstanding crisis that the government has sought to address with little resolution, allows criminal groups to have their way.

“Small cities and towns are really highly impacted,” said Daniel M. Sabet, a visiting professor at Georgetown University who studies policing in Mexico. “They offer strongholds organized crime can hold and control.”

Some towns consider themselves so vulnerable that they have gone out of their way not to antagonize criminals. Believing that those involved in organized crime would be less inclined to harm women — and because fewer men are willing to take the job — local officials have appointed a handful of women in the past year to senior police ranks in small cities and towns here in Chihuahua, the country’s most violent state.

After a spate of violence in a neighboring town, Praxédis Guerrero, local officials selected a 20-year-old college student in November as police chief to run the force of nine women and two men, hoping that criminal networks would see her as less threatening.

Marisol Valles, the young police chief, had made it clear that she left major crimes to state and federal authorities to investigate. Really, she said, she just reviews civil infractions issued by other officers and rarely leaves the office. “I am more like an administrator,” said Ms. Valles, who did not carry a gun or wear a uniform.

But the criminals have not discriminated. Hermila García, the woman appointed police chief of Meoqui, a small city in central Chihuahua, was killed on Nov. 30 after only a month in the job.

Guadalupe tried to put a nonthreatening face on law enforcement by appointing Ms. Gándara chief in October. But it appears that she tried — or at least talked about — taking the job more seriously, to the regret of her uncle, Mayor Tomás Archuleta. He had good reason to counsel a low profile: He took office after his predecessor was killed last summer, part of a wave of assassinations of local officials across Mexico.

“I told Érika, ‘Be careful,’ to not make waves,” Mr. Archuleta said, openly frustrated by the picture of her with the rifle. Like Ms. Valles, her role is more to issue citations, leaving serious crimes to state and federal authorities.

Guadalupe has plenty of them to investigate. There are as many abandoned homes and businesses — several of them gutted — as occupied ones. One recent morning, four homes smoldered from an attack and two people had been shot dead with high-powered weapons, the bullets leaving several gaping holes in cinder-block walls.

Few people here leave their homes after 5 p.m., and see soldiers and police officers only briefly after a major crime or when they are guarding the monthly delivery of government pension checks for retirees.

“We lock ourselves in most of the time,” said Eduardo Contreras, 26, as he watched residents douse and pick through the embers of their smoldering homes.

In a voice choked with tears, María Torres, 70, who grew up here, said, “This is so sad what has happened here,” as she carried a sign for a church service.

Mr. Archuleta, the mayor, said the town mainly gets its protection from soldiers based at a recreation center in Praxédis Guerrero. Maybe, Mr. Archuleta suggested, not having local police officers is better. He said local residents had told him that common crimes like burglary had dropped out of fear of drawing the attention of a military patrol.

“There aren’t any” minor crimes, he said, his voice dropping to a near whisper.

But townspeople disputed that, complaining that the soldiers or state and federal police officers were rarely seen except after major violence had occurred.

“There is no police, no fire department, no social services, nothing here,” said the middle-aged matriarch from one burned-out home, declining to give her name for fear of reprisals. “People get away with everything here. Nothing gets investigated, not even murders.”

Not long afterward, a four-truck caravan of federal police officers arrived from another town, hopping down from their vehicles, taking notes and asking her and other family members for a word. The family refused even to open the gate for the police, apparently out of fear of being seen talking to them, and the officers moved on. The officers appeared to be taking stock, driving from crime scene to crime scene and taking notes, but not mounting a forensic investigation.

At the site of the double murder in the morning, one officer dabbed at a pool of blood and body fluid on the driveway with a stick; another picked up a piece of flesh and playfully tossed it at a companion.

Ms. Gándara may not have investigated much deeper. Local police officers in small towns usually play a mostly preventive role, refereeing minor disputes, handling the town drunk and quieting rowdy teenagers, city managers said. Many are not armed.

Mr. Archuleta would say little else about his niece, Ms. Gándara, citing an investigation by the state prosecutor’s office, which would not comment on a motive. But he noted that he had turned to her when nobody else would take the job. She had experience as a security guard and appeared not to be involved in any criminal activity, he said.

“Who knows what people do in their private lives,” he said, “but I did not think she was involved in anything.”

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14 Borderland Beat Comments:

thebronze said...

Sad...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this... Calderon has Mexican blood on his hands! he is a pathetic failure and his refusal to accept help frpm other countries is and has been costing thousands of lives of the good people of Mexico! Their is no logical reasoning for him to just sit by and watch as these wonderful people are slaughtered day after day after day! The people of Mexico need ro rise up and demand that he do more! Shame on the U.S. and the world for not stepping in and making more noise over this issue! What is it going to take? Is he going to wait until half the entire opulation has been murdered?

How can the evil dirty rotten scum criminals live with themselves after turning on its own country killing there own people? How can they look in a mirror after what they have done to Mexico? How does a human being fall that deeply into evil as to desert their own country and begin killing their brothers and sisters in the most horrific manner? People that have allowed themselves to become possessed with that much evil have no place on earth around civilized peoples!

I pray every day for the good people of Mexico that they will once again know freedom peace and joy sometime soon and for those that have lost loved ones you can take solace in knowing that they are in heaven with the lord having been called home for reasons that we may not understand. Please have faith and do not give up on the good things that no evil demon can steal or destroy, the love of family and friends, God speed Amigos... - Grande Goat Horn

''lito'brito said...

proudly mexico marches deeper into chaos...but why should we .Americans waste blood and treasure trying to fix Mexico...let the ricos de Mexico pay to fix their own mess..

US out of Afghanistan...no US involvement in Mexico

El_Regio said...

Anon 10:57... lol another PRI'ista... it's all Calderons fight right? The previous 30 years of PRI rule have nothing to do with the situation right? lol

Anonimo said...

30 years of PRI? Try 70 years of PRI corruption.

However, he is right. The Mexican people are the ones who have chosen to accept this state of affairs. Until they choose to change things and choose a man who is a leader against evil, it will not change.

Ardent said...

Actually he sounds much more like a US citizen than any PRIista of Mexico, Regio. And besides, you yourself live in Houston, not Monterrey...

'El_Regio said...
Anon 10:57... lol another PRI'ista... it's all Calderons fight right? The previous 30 years of PRI rule have nothing to do with the situation right? lol'

You're hardly the great example of a Mexican citizen yourself,'El Regio', it would surely seem. You have been in the US for just how long now, PANista you?

Anonymous said...

oHHH SNAP!!!!

Anonymous said...

Too bad that the Mexican Government does not use Marshall law as a first step to eradicate the cartels.

Anonymous said...

I've heard this gal's family was "involved" - as they say. But she just vanished. RIP

'lito - I can't agree with you. Out of Afghanistan and Iraq - yes. But if the US is going to help anybody it should help Mexico. Over the decades the US has screwed Mexico more than anything. But Mexico and Canada are our next-door neighbors. We should always help them. Not take over, not invade, not even intrude - help, assist, go that little bit further for them.

We should understand if they are still having trouble getting over losing half of their country to the US. We did rip them off.

Anonymous said...

What we are watching is beginning of a war. A real war between Mexico and the United States (again). The obvious is happening and will continue to devolve into a lawless chaos in Northern Mexico that will only be controlled by primitive warlords. The gangs will take control of the highways, the communications, and all commerce that runs through 'their territory.' The great manufacturing bases of Monterrey and the Valle Central de Mexico will be at the mercy of the choke hold on the highways and the railroads to the USA. At that point, the USA (possibly in concert with the remaining power structure in D.F. who are not part of the Narco trade) will be forced to act, and the EEUU will be forced to invade Mexico. A long guerrilla struggle will ensue with unimaginable loss of life and property. If you live in the Zona Infectada... it is time to go. Pack up and get gone while there is still time,
Sincerely,
Hazel Motes -somewhere in S. Texas

Anonymous said...

@ Hazel - If you are referring to the Mexican-American War, that was the US ripping off Mexico at one of the most vulnerable periods in Mexican history. But since the US never learns - Korea, Vietnam, Iraq 2x, Afghanistan - it is possible US generals could persuade a US president to send troops south. Beyond stupid but possible. More likely is a US-backed escalation using aircraft and air to ground weapons. This will be very effective against the cartels but innocent civilians will get killed.

'lito 'brito said...

@ anon...yeah too bad messico isn't bigger...and the USA smaller..so the narcos would have more power and could just outright invade us...

how can we help people who are so greedy for money...send money..jajaja...right ..send soldiers...to kill ..kill who? ..whoever is standing around?..i think we have helped enough already by allowing 15 million illegal refugees to be here and send billions of dollars back to messico


we stole from messico..right check the history..messico started the war...there was even talk of "taking" new orleans..the indians had been fighting the mexicans for years ...i had a Navajo friend that told me his ancestors used to eat Mexicans...france, russia and spain still claimed parts of the territory..texas wanted to be an independent nation...so did california...it was all up for grabs...and once again Mexico was having internal problems...seems like Mexico always has the same fight going on about who is gonna run the government... the mesican army had us out numbered three to one...out gunned ..out experienced ...and were making big expansionist talk...they lost ..they took the money..signed the paper ..and have never stopped whining about it..you may owe messico something...but i don't

and before you get all self rightous and irate ..i love Mexico ..my wife is Mexican , regia montana...i spend a good deal of time in Mexico...i have lived in Mexico, and will eagerly return when my finances and the situation improve...and i love the Mexican people ...but the truth is it is a mexican problem...our responsibility ends at the river...if we did our part and guarded our borders ..no contraband in...no contraband out ..deal with our stupid drug laws and stupid addicts ...that would be the best way to help Mexico...

military intervention would be a big mistake...we are not the world police ...at least we should not try to be ..all it would do is make patriots out of narcos and every other pinche mugroso culero that could wrap themselves in the flag... and get a lot of mostly innocent people killed

the ricos de Mexico have the money..let the carlos slims cough up some money to fix it ..they just don't care ..they are protected ...and are all in on it

i stand by what i said ...US out of Afghanistan and no more meddling in any bodys internal affairs....we just make it worse and deplete our own resources in the process

Ardent said...

I have to respect Brito's understanding that invasions, wars, occupations, and more militarism in all these foreign countries makes things worse for all, including us US citizens. Just because our government is the biggest bully today, does not mean that by acting as super bully 'we' will always stay in that position. One day the chickens eventually will come home to roost and all that gun culture the US has will be seen as our biggest American tragedy. Mexico may well turn out to be the US government's ultimate 'Achille's heel'...

Anonymous said...

There are a few points in the comments that make some sense, but also a lot of crap and a lot of pointing fingers.

Brito, you sometimes make very valid points, but your offensive "Messicans" label is rude, disrespectful and does nothing to further otherwise valid agruments.

As for the PAN/PRI issue, it is interesting to see that Mexicans have the same short memory as Americans. Always blaming the current government for the problems they inherited from the last.

The facts surrounding the PRI are very simple and acknowledged by the old PRI hierachy - the PRI negotiated deals with the cartels in exchange for money and a promise not to target locals. They did of course, but it was quiet. Lots of murders, extortions, kidnappings occurred and many more simply disappeared while the politicians, military (lots of photos of the Army guarding warehouses of cocaine before shipment).

Fact: the US is not going to take over Mexico for countless reasons. Who would want a crumbling infrastructure, a poorly educated population and limited natural resources? Similarly, international law and Mexico's own fierce independence prevents the US from interfering. To do so unilaterally would be an act of war and the US would not get away with it on the international stage.

Decades of corruption in politics, the military, the police perpetuates this problem. Everyone has their hand out from customs to police.

I have lived in Monterrey for 11 years and almost every time I travel to or from the US, I have some official looking for a bribe to avoid delays or hassles. Pay off customs and sneak in a couple of new TVs. Pay off the cop who stops you near the airport who claims you are only allowed 1 suitcase per passenger in the vehicle.

The corruption is so endemic and institutionalized in Mexico that no amount of going after the cartels will stop this. Start at the top and clean house. Have special sentences for any public employee that abuses the public trust. Go after the banks (Mexican & US) that launder billions.

Take away the money and you take away the corruption. Money is the power of the cartels.

Stop pointing fingers and passing blame. Mexico needs to take responsibility for its own problems and needs to find its own solution.

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