Photo: Janet Jarman for The New York Times
Officer José Ramón Hernández, above center, of the Jalapa police prepared to storm a house during a recent hostage rescue training exercise
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
New York Times
They were out looking for cattle thieves in the rolling pastures of this small town, bumping along in their police truck on a remote road, talking about nothing, when bright lights snapped them to attention.
Headlights in the distance from an approaching car and behind it another, and another, and another. A caravan of four luxury sedans fast approaching on a road rarely traveled at night.
Was it a large family? Bandits? Drug traffickers? Suddenly the officers faced a choice: Do we stop them and risk a shootout, or live with the mystery?
“They would have been able to shoot quicker,” Officer Lorenzo López said later, after letting the caravan pass. “By the time we would have realized it, we would have already been flying to heaven as little angels.”
In the age of the drug war, local policing is often the biggest gap in slowing the spread of criminal networks, whose battles for turf and clashes with federal and state authorities have claimed 34,000 lives in the past four years.
President Felipe Calderón has proposed essentially doing away with municipal police forces like Jalapa’s, folding them under the command of the 31 state police forces as a way to standardize training, tamp down corruption and boost professionalism.
But with the proposal stalled in the Mexican Congress — some legislators object to giving the state police too much power, given their own corruption and links to organized crime — its future is unclear.
So a number of mayors have sought to prop up their forces on their own.
Some simply want armed men at their beck and call, a Mexican congressional report asserted last year, while others believe the local forces, with proper training and equipment, know their communities best.
Here, the mayor, a former engineer in Mexico City who returned home at the urging of a priest, has won plaudits from the state human rights commission for trying to bring reform to the town.
Still, the crime gangs can be persuasive.
Under an ultimatum known as “plata o plomo” — silver or lead — they have abducted or killed scores of officers across Mexico in the past several years and corrupted an untold number with bribes.
“It is pretty calm here right now,” said José Ramón Hernández, 33, who joined the police because there were few other options for work. “We realize drug dealing and traffic is all around us though. We don’t investigate that. It’s not our role, but we hope we don’t get caught up in something connected to that.”
Under Mexican law, state and federal authorities investigate drug trafficking offenses and other serious crimes. In much of the country, the local police mostly handle the little cases, rousting the town drunk, breaking up bar fights, protecting the delivery of pension checks.
In this farming town, their weapons are old, some of the rifles dating from the Vietnam War era and the six-shooters even older. Gas is carefully rationed among the four or five trucks, and the salary is about $400 a month, leading most of the officers to side jobs like ranching.
Despite the relative quiet, suspicious vehicles and people pass through and a recent spate of violence near the town has the police at once bracing for an unexpected clash while hoping to avoid it.
“With six shots, would you take on a gang?” asked Ovidio Cornelio, a police commander here.
Jalapa, a collection of villages with a total population of 33,000, sits along drug and migrant smuggling routes leading north from Guatemala, and is dominated primarily by the Zetas, one of the country’s most violent crime groups. The violence in surrounding Tabasco State pales in comparison with that of areas along the border with the United States, but the recent rash of kidnappings and unsolved killings in nearby towns has alarmed the community.
“The country is trying to halt something that cannot really be halted,” Mayor Luis F. Deyá Oropeza said. “There is too much social discontent.”
After taking office a year ago, the mayor set about rebuilding a department he said had fallen into disarray, with its 150 officers not expected to work for their checks and bribes tolerated.
His own job is one of the riskiest in political life in Mexico, where at least 17 mayors have been killed in the past year. Mr. Deyá, surrounded by bodyguards, said he had become a chain smoker.
He hired a new police chief, a retired air force major who exhorts his officers at daily pep talks to walk a straight line.
“Don’t worry about major crimes,” the chief, Isidro Becerra Macias, said recently at the morning muster. “There are other organizations in charge of those. Respect our citizens. You must be honest. You must be disciplined.”
Most of the police officers come from the surrounding ranches, many of them former soldiers.
“If you don’t go off to study, you join the military,” said Paquín Flores, 33, a former soldier who joined the police. “Those are your choices here because there is no other work.”
Mr. Deyá said becoming an officer had been as simple as getting a referral from a friend in the force.
“It was like, ‘We know his family, his friends; he may drink a little on Saturday, but we can cure those vices,’ ” he said.
Using federal grant money, Mr. Deyá hired an Israeli security consultant, Ilan Hendelman, who conducted a training course in basic policing, self-defense and resolving what the mayor calls “extreme situations,” like hostage taking.
“The police had no training here,” the mayor said.
Mr. Hendelman, part of a cottage industry of private police trainers in Mexico, said he fretted that officers would take their newly learned skills to the cartels, so he sought to vet officers in classes.
“Since you were in the army, you have good training. I will offer you more money than the police. What do you think about that?” Mr. Hendelman asked one officer before letting him in.
“I would say no,” the officer replied, “because a hit man only lives three to four years and that is not a lot.”
Still, the gangs often give officers no choice, threatening them or their families.
Mr. López, said he had thought about this possibility “20,000 times.”
“I think I would quit and leave,” he said, after a late night shift of little action beyond a pot-smoking kid dashing away from officers.
Mr. Flores said that when he was in the military, operatives for the gangs scouted bars that he and police officers frequented after hours.
“They would look at your haircut and say: ‘You are police? You are military? You can make more working for us,’ ” he recalled. “I didn’t want any trouble. I just wanted to get home.”
Mr. Flores was also shocked at the lack of training of his colleagues and in spare moments would give informal instruction in firearms and self-defense.
“I showed them what I could,” he said. “Some are interested, some aren’t.”
One of Mr. Hendelman’s teams prowled on a recent night, hopping out of their trucks to check on a couple of stranded motorists. On another afternoon, they stood guard in the sun while federal workers distributed pension checks to the elderly in a town square, looking bored. But tense moments come unexpectedly.
“You go to break up a party and people surround you when you try to take someone away,” Mr. López said. “They say, ‘We know you, we know your family.’ Sometimes they shoot into the air.”
Mr. Deyá said he was not sure, even after the improvements, if the officers were ready for much more. “In reality, it is only the military, the marines, that can combat organized crime,” he said. “Aside from being many, they are anonymous and protected in their barracks. Police are very vulnerable. Even in a democracy, a little authoritarianism is necessary.”
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