The daily death toll in the Mexican drug war is staggering, and over this past weekend, in the border city of Juarez, one death in particular stood out: a Mexican federal police commander was ambushed and killed in broad daylight. He was part of a force that is Mexico's newest hope to fight drug cartels, human smugglers and southward-bound weapons.
Now, in an unprecedented effort, the U.S. is training Mexican federal police to fight.
Nine men in black fatigues walk steadily forward, holding M4 rifles. Each time they're told there's danger in front of them, they fire.
The threat is a target on the wall of a warehouse in Nogales, Ariz. The rifles are modified to shoot cartridges similar to paintballs. The students are Mexican federal police officers; the teachers are U.S. border patrol agents.
This tactical urban training is new and necessary for the Mexican officers. Some fire rifles as though they are hunting deer.
The threat from drug cartels is so serious, the U.S. instructors, their translators and the Mexican trainees asked us not to use their names. One of the trainees — a 14-year veteran — says he's having trouble keeping up with the enemy.
"The criminal element in my country has grown a lot," he says in Spanish. "They have more equipment, more training, more resources to attack."
Nogales is the first location for this training. There are plans to expand it along the border. This is a short program: a day of urban tactical training, a day outdoors learning to maneuver ATVs, and a day of emergency medical training.
Victor Manjarrez, the new chief of the border patrol's Tucson sector, says it's a critical step in securing both sides of the border.
"If we can erase that boundary and there's going to be a law enforcement consequence either in the United States or in Mexico, that's the best of both worlds for the government of Mexico and the United States," Manjarrez says
The Obama administration recently pledged $331 million to help. It wants to show the border is secure before attempting immigration reform. Mexican President Felipe Calderon desperately needs to restore order by quelling drug-related violence. The Mexican army — sent up to the border region — hasn't been able to stop it, possibly because it's notoriously corrupt.
Erica Dahl-Bredine, the Mexico country manager of Catholic Relief Services, has documented human rights abuses by the army and by local police extorting bribes.
"The Mexican government has made strides, no question, in purging the various police forces of corrupt officers, but the drug cartels continue to have a very strong hold on Mexican police and military," she says.
The hope is that the cross-border training will lessen that hold. The federal police are not military and they're not local. Officers are under the command of the Mexican secretary of public safety — similar to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Mexican trainees are carefully vetted, their backgrounds checked and activities monitored. Still, Manjarrez acknowledges it's a gamble.
"To tell you it's going to be a 100 percent no risk, that just would simply not be accurate," the Tucson border patrol chief says.
Manjarrez says any law enforcement agency is at risk for corruption, including his own. Drug cartels can offer a lot of money for officers to look the other way or for information on where forces are deployed on either side of the border. But at least U.S. border patrol agents are paid a decent salary — $70,000 to start. Mexican federal police officers are paid between $14,000 and $24,000 a year, making them more vulnerable.
Although intelligence sharing is a key component of the cross-border cooperation, Manjarrez says it's not yet likely to be high-level intelligence.
"At some point, though, there's got to be a degree of trust," he says — especially since they will now be better trained, better equipped and more deadly.