Police Chief Tackles Drug-Ridden Mexican Town

The volatile Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo has been on the front line of a vicious gang war. The newly appointed police chief, whose job it is to clean up the mess — including corruption inside the police force itself — is a former highway patrolman with an unorthodox approach.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

The border city of Nuevo Laredo is on the front line of a vicious war between gangs that traffic in illegal drugs. Hundreds of the city's police officers have been fired after it became clear that much of the force was on the payroll of drug lords. A handful have been charged with crimes such as kidnapping and attempted murder. The man who's been appointed to clean up the mess is a former highway patrolman with an unorthodox approach. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has this profile of Nuevo Laredo's new police chief.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

His predecessor lasted about seven hours on the job before he was assassinated; the one before him was also killed. These are facts Omar Pimentel is well aware of. He sits at his desk at the municipal police headquarters reading a magazine article titled `This man may be dead by the time you read this.' On the next page is a picture of Pimentel, Nuevo Laredo's newly anointed police chief.

Chief OMAR PIMENTEL (Nuevo Laredo Police): (Through Translator) It's true. This is a very dangerous job, but I feel someone has to do it. I have faith that everything is going to be all right, perfectly fine, that there'll be someone to look after me. There's someone out there, and that's God. I have my faith.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course, Pimentel also has bodyguards that look after him, but he's clearly influenced by his more spiritual leanings. He talks of maintaining order and calm in his sky-blue office. On his desk, a scented candle burns.

Chief PIMENTEL: (Through Translator) For me, the candle is light, the light of hope, a light that shows me the way and it purifies my environment in my office so that it'll feel calm. And apart from that, it smells nice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The former highway patrolman and lawyer by training is hoping to take his beliefs to his decimated police force, injecting some love into the equation.

Chief PIMENTEL: (Through Translator) I think they've been very hurt by accusations of corruption. I think this is the time to rally around the police. I want to help them to get a better quality of life, help their families so the policemen can be close to their families. That way, they'll do a better job for the city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But by some estimates, at least half of the police force was on the take from the cartels before it was purged over the summer. Around 260 police were fired for links to the drug groups. Several have been charged with attempted murder and kidnapping. Apart from the emotional support, Pimentel wants to raise policemen's $570 monthly salary by $150 while also offering other financial support.

Chief PIMENTEL: (Through Translator) In our program, we're going to give police's children scholarships to good schools. The wife or husband of the officer will have access to higher education, get housing credits, credits for new cars. I think everyone has a right to drive a new car. I think this will be valued by them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But whether the perks will keep one of the most corrupt police forces on the straight and narrow remains to be seen. One story has become legendary in Nuevo Laredo. Residents say a few months ago, fugitive Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, brazenly went to a fancy restaurant in Nuevo Laredo one night. He was accompanied by his bodyguards who took his fellow diners' cell phones and stopped everyone from leaving until he'd finished eating. At the end, he thanked everyone for their patience, paid for all the meals and disappeared into the night. People say the police knew he was in town. Whether the story is true or not--and officials say it isn't--it shows that the perception in Nuevo Laredo is that law enforcement is not always on the side of law and order. As for Pimentel, he says he's no hero.

Chief PIMENTEL: (Through Translator) Yeah, I think I'd leave this job if they attacked me. I'm not here for the money. This is a professional commitment for me. I hope nothing like that ever happens, though.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But for now he says that while he knows Nuevo Laredo will always have a problem with the drug trade, he's optimistic that things are finally turning around in his city. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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