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Monday, November 23, 2009

Mexico's Cops Seek Upgrade

Senior Official With a Storied Past Tries to Emulate FBI

When pressed about why Mexico is struggling in its battle with illegal-drug cartels, Genaro García Luna, the nation's top police official, likes to put his inquisitors on the spot with a question: Would you encourage your child to become a Mexican cop?

The answer, he says, is often no.

The reputation of Mexican police is so poor that even Mr. García Luna, a stocky, frenetic man with close-cropped hair, would have given the same answer not long ago. As a young domestic intelligence officer at Mexico's spy agency in the 1990s, he says, he would have been "offended" if anyone referred to him as a cop.

Now, it is his job to change all that. Mexican President Felipe Calderón tapped the 41-year-old to rebuild Mexico's police from scratch amid a drug war that's claimed at least 13,000 lives since Mr. Calderón took power nearly three years ago. The centerpiece of Mr. García Luna's plan: persuading college-educated sons and daughters of the middle class to become part of a new, professional police corps.

"We've had a corrupt, uneducated police force, without a budget, driving stolen vehicles and basically decomposing for 40 years," says Mr. García Luna, an engineer by training who was known in his younger days for tailing suspects on his motorcycle and personally leading raids on kidnapping rings. "I want to break historical inertias."

Mexico's future may depend on it. Unable to rely on the police, Mr. Calderón has deployed 45,000 soldiers to confront drug gangs by patrolling hot spots, giving cities such as Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, Texas, the feel of war zones. But experts say military occupations are a short-term fix because traffickers ultimately scurry to set up shop somewhere else. Corralling drug gangs for the long term requires the kind of deep detective work that can uncover money transfers, drug shipments and bribe payments.

Mexico is seeking the capability to pull off the kind of operation announced Thursday by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder: the near-simultaneous, multi-U.S. city arrests of 300 members of the Mexican "La Familia" drug cartel, which has trafficked a flood of methamphetamine into the U.S. while terrorizing Mexico's Michoacán state.

While this week's arrests were a U.S. operation, La Familia is a also key front in Mr. García Luna's drug war. Responding to the July arrest of a top La Familia boss in Michoacan, the group captured, tortured and killed a dozen of Mr. García Luna's federal agents -- some of whom were working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on investigations.

"This is not a one-country problem, and solving it will take more than a one-country solution," Mr. Holder said Thursday. "La Familia's attacks against Mexican law enforcement officials only make the valiant effort of our friends and partners across the border more heroic."

Mr. García Luna has modeled his new Federal Police force after the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and other international agencies, with modern equipment, technology and enhanced investigative powers like wiretaps. His plan is to gradually replace the army on the drug war's front lines with this two-and-a-half year-old force of around 40,000 cops. For now, the army is still in place, and the government won't give a timeline for pulling the troops out.

The challenge is enormous. The average Mexican cop never made it past the eighth grade. Some can't read or write. Many Mexicans' only contact with a beat cop comes when they pay $5 bribes to get out of traffic stops. In some cities like Tijuana, well over half the local cops have recently failed lie-detector tests, according to one former city official familiar with the tests. In 2007, local cops in the Pacific resort town of Rosarito ambushed a new police chief drafted to help clean things up. He lived, but his bodyguard didn't.

Mr. García Luna's supporters, including senior officials in the Calderón government and a group of businessmen he helped when members of their families were kidnapped over the years, see him as a Mexican Eliot Ness, the 1930s-era Chicago crime fighter. They say he is risking his life -- four of his top aides have already been gunned down -- to keep the nation from disintegrating into a narco-state. They point out that so far his Federal Police have seized nearly 30 tons of cocaine and arrested more than 300 prominent traffickers.

Critics, including some opposition lawmakers, deride him as a wannabe J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI's first director, and say his efforts are plagued by incompetence and ethical lapses. Like Mr. Hoover, they say, he has used strong-arm tactics against critics, trumping up legal charges against them to compel their silence. In his zeal for boosting the image of the Federal Police, he admitted to staging a kidnap rescue for the benefit of television cameras. During a raucous, eight-hour appearance before congress in September, opposition lawmakers blasted him for failing to keep Mexico's murder rate from soaring this year.

A rash of scandals among those close to him hasn't helped Mr. García Luna build credibility. Though he has never been charged with a criminal act or implicated in a corruption scandal, some of his senior aides have. Last year, his top antidrug commander was arrested and charged with helping a cartel. He is in jail awaiting trial. Another officer in Mr. García Luna's anti-kidnap squad was arrested for allegedly organizing phony police checkpoints to abduct victims on behalf of a kidnapping gang. She is being held for possible trial by Mexico City authorities.

"García Luna should resign because at this point his credibility has been so damaged that it is threatening his whole project," says Alberto Islas, who runs a Mexico City-based consulting firm that has worked on drug-war issues for the Calderon government. "The debate has become about him, rather than the police institution he wants to build."

Mr. García Luna says he is clean, and he says the fact that his aides were arrested shows that corruption is no longer tolerated. He says all arrests he has made have been on legitimate warrants. He compares the state of Mexican police to that of 1970s New York, which inspired movies like "Serpico," where Al Pacino plays a lone clean cop in sea of corruption. His voice fills with vehemence when his record is challenged. "There is an end to this film," he says. "We're going to do this, you'll see. Remember me."

The Bribe or the Bullet

Much of the skepticism about whether Mr. García Luna can succeed is rooted in the history of Mexican law enforcement. The government has announced plans to reform its police so many times over the decades that it is hard for some to take new attempts seriously.

Popular wisdom holds that eventually, law-enforcement officials in Mexico must choose between plata, the money of a bribe, or plomo, the lead of an assassin's bullet. In 1997, Mexico's antidrug czar, Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was caught on a drug-gang payroll, and is now behind bars.

"What Gutiérrez Rebollo taught us is that you just never know," says a senior Calderón administration official who supports Mr. García Luna. "But at the end of the day, you have to trust the guys you've got, or else you have nothing."

Mr. García Luna's reliability is a concern for U.S. security officials as the two nations draw closer in the drug fight. The U.S. has begun transferring $400 million in drug aid for Mexico, by far the biggest commitment since the Gutiérrez Rebollo case shattered U.S. confidence. Around half of this money will flow to Mr. García Luna, mainly in the form of Black Hawk helicopters and other equipment.

To give the new federal force a fighting chance, Mr. García Luna has provided officers with souped-up patrol cars, body armor, AR-15 assault rifles and an array of technology including surveillance balloons that hover above cities. He guards these assets jealously, and senior Federal Police officers say he gets particularly upset when an officer crashes one of the fleet of Dodge Charger squad cars he acquired.

For the first time, Mexico is putting together a national database of vehicle registrations, arrest warrants, jail inmates and other data, a crucial tool for nabbing fugitives.

Of course, all the fancy technology in the world can't take down drug gangs if the police themselves remain corrupt and inefficient. That is where Mr. García Luna's plan to recruit middle-class college graduates comes in. Many in this demographic have a hard time finding good jobs in a sluggish economy where the highest paying positions still tend to go to the elites. And though Mexican law enforcement has always favored brawn over brains, recruiting primarily from the lower classes, Mr. García Luna says the world's best police agencies actually have it the other way around: "When I first visited the FBI, I realized most everyone there had master's degrees. Why can't we do that?"

The experiment began in earnest in June as Mr. García Luna began recruiting thousands of college grads from top universities to form a new division of investigative agents at the Federal Police. Around 1,300 have since graduated from two months of course work at a new police academy in the town of San Luis Potosi and are now receiving three months of field training. Mr. García Luna says he plans to hire around 10,000 new investigators.

The rest of the officers will be required to have high-school diplomas -- a standard that previous national forces haven't imposed -- and will go through similar field training.

A Clear Career Path

It is the investigative unit in particular that Mr. García Luna hopes will spearhead a fundamental change in the way Mexican police operate. Until now, police have built cases mainly around confessions of witnesses, a situation ripe for accusations of coercion. Instead, these new officers will build cases based on collecting evidence, such as phone records.

To attract them, the base pay of a federal police agent has been raised by more than 30% to around 16,000 pesos per month, or about $1,200, more than many white-collar jobs pay. All recruits get access to cut-rate mortgages, health care and a retirement plan.

That was enough to convince Juan Pablo Viay, a 35-year-old father of two who was recently laid off from his job at Chrysler's Mexico City corporate headquarters. Now he is training at the police academy and hopes to apply his white-collar skills, like analyzing spreadsheets, to crime fighting. With his wife and parents worried for his safety, he is pinning his hopes on an analyst job that would keep him largely out of the line of fire.

The increased pay alone won't be enough to stem the tide of corruption, says Mr. García Luna, since a drug gang can always offer more money. That's why new recruits are tested to gauge their susceptibility to bribes, including a lie-detector test and a follow-up a visit to the recruit's home. More broadly, by offering an upward career path, cops have an incentive to stay on the straight and narrow, says Mr. García Luna.

For Elizabeth Mendoza, a 29-year-old Federal Police recruit, the decision to sign up was a mix of economic need and a desire to do something to help her country. She quit her job as an administrator at a truck manufacturer after seeing a TV advertisement for the Federal Police that promised merit-driven promotions.

These days, Ms. Mendoza, a married mother of one, gets up before dawn for a 6 a.m. assembly of recruits in a large courtyard at the Police Academy. Standing at attention as the sun rises, she and other recruits sing the national anthem and a new Federal Police hymn -- commissioned by Mr. García Luna in a bid, he says, to build esprit de corps.

Along with hundreds of other aspiring cadets clad in a uniform of jeans and white shirts, Ms. Mendoza attends classes on conducting investigations, collecting evidence and giving testimony, as well as shooting weapons and cuffing suspects. She is surrounded by recruits with a similar economic and social background. Eighty percent have never held a weapon before.

More than half of Ms. Mendoza's instructors hail from the U.S., Spain, Colombia and other nations where agents often have university-level educations. The presence of overseas instructors sends a powerful message for young Mexican recruits who lack homegrown models of professional police, says Academy Director Severino Cartagena.

On a recent Thursday along a main highway in Ciudad Juárez, José Menera, a 34-year-old chemical engineer turned Federal Police officer, nabbed a man driving a load of marijuana in a hidden compartment in his gas tank. The young officer did it from the air-conditioned cab of a high-tech roadside scanning machine purchased under Mr. García Luna's overhaul.

Catching the 'Ear Cutter'

Mr. García Luna took an unlikely path into police work. Raised in a working-class enclave of Mexico City, he was a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student when he took a job with a new Mexican spy agency, the CISEN. He rose fast, and was sent for training exercises with the FBI and at police agencies in Spain and elsewhere.

Among his first assignments was tracking an urban guerrilla group that specialized in kidnapping. His defining moment came in 1998, when he assembled a covert squad that captured Daniel Arizmendi, a former cop turned leader of a violent kidnapping ring. Mr. Arizmendi had become a national terror, popularly called the "Ear Cutter" for his practice of slicing off victims' ears and sending them to families to pressure them to pay ransom.

In 2001, newly elected President Vicente Fox tapped him to head up the Federal Judicial Police. Arriving at the Judicial Police headquarters in a rough Mexico City barrio, he found crumbling offices reeking of sewage. The few beat-up computers on desks were not connected by a network. Bullet proof glass separated the chief's office from the police themselves. Some officers drove stolen cars and employed freelance thugs called "madrinas" to enforce their will on the streets.

Mr. García Luna tried to modernize the force, culling nearly half of the 6,000 officers after they flunked lie-detector tests or other aptitude measures. But his plans to form a new force, the Federal Investigative Agency, fell apart after many of the fired police went to court and won reinstatement. Soon AFI agents were being implicated in crimes.

He got another chance. In 2006, Mr. Calderón named him to the cabinet level post of Public Security Secretary. Starting from scratch, Mr. García Luna took the best men from the AFI and made them the core of the new Federal Police.

Even if Mr. García Luna proves he is clean, his biggest obstacle may be time. Mexican politicians are not big on institutional continuity, meaning the Federal Police could be dismantled and Mr. García Luna pushed out the door after elections in 2012.

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