Mexican president faces daunting task in cleaning up police

Wednesday, March 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - Cruising through this seedy border city, police Lt. Jesus Benavides snickered at the mention of President Vicente Fox's promise to combat corruption.

``We're realists. Corruption is never going to end. It's a culture going back generations,'' Benavides said. ``If you have someone in the back of your patrol car and he says to you, 'Take the money or I'll kill your family,' which one would you pick?''

Mexico's new Attorney General Rafael Macedo met with top U.S. law enforcement officials in Washington this week to discuss strengthening the fight against drug trafficking and corruption. But this drug-corridor city shows it's not a simple battle.

At least two former federal police commanders from Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located, are sought by the Mexican government and are believed to be in the United States.

``The majority of the federal police commanders here are either dead or detained,'' said Alfredo Quijano Hernandez, an editor and former police reporter at the Juarez newspaper, El Norte. ``Many have been executed after working for drug rings.''

Fox, emboldened by his toppling of seven decades of single-party rule, launched a nationwide campaign against corruption after taking office Dec. 1.

Last month, the president removed 67 of Chihuahua's 80 federal police agents after uncovering a scheme to sell a police position for nearly $500,000. The money was believed to come from drug smugglers who wanted a connection inside the department.

Jose Manuel Diaz, one of Chihuahua's top police officials, was placed under house arrest in the scandal. But he escaped weeks later from under the noses of 11 federal agents, embarrassing the attorney general's office.

``Fox appears to have the political will, but on the other side, he doesn't have many tools,'' said John Bailey, a Mexico specialist at Georgetown University. ``He doesn't have a lot of elements to work with, his anti-organized crime unit has not been working, his anti-money laundering unit is not operating. He can put administrative reforms into play, but that takes a long time.''

Efforts at reform have left Mexico with the lowest number of federal officers in six years - from 4,500 in 1995 to 1,800 today, according to the attorney general's office. In an effort to replenish the force, the police have cut required training from one year to just three months, a move critics say has led to undertrained officers.

Despite the obstacles, analysts say the recent purge in Chihuahua - the strongest federal action taken against police here - shows that Fox is serious.

On Tuesday, the new attorney general and officials from the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration discussed ways to improve training and increase the exchange of information.

Benavides said he would welcome the measures if they return dignity to the job.

``I'm out here because I want to do something for my community,'' said the Juarez officer, adding that he has never taken a bribe. ``But unfortunately, most people here see police as the bad guys.''