Juarez Police Face Both Criminals and Suspicions

Jaime Torres Valadez is the spokesman for the Juarez police i i

hide captionJaime Torres Valadez is the spokesman for the Juarez Police Department. The force has lost at least 18 of its officers to assassination this year.

Adriane Jaeckle for NPR
Jaime Torres Valadez is the spokesman for the Juarez police

Jaime Torres Valadez is the spokesman for the Juarez Police Department. The force has lost at least 18 of its officers to assassination this year.

Adriane Jaeckle for NPR
A Juarez police officer displays his bulletproof vest, bought with his own money. i i

hide captionA Juarez police officer displays his bulletproof vest, bought with his own money. On the table is the one issued to him by the Juarez police: a lightweight hand-me-down from the U.S. Border Patrol. The department's vest, he says, doesn't stop most bullets from the guns used by drug cartels.

Adriane Jaeckle for NPR
A Juarez police officer displays his bulletproof vest, bought with his own money.

A Juarez police officer displays his bulletproof vest, bought with his own money. On the table is the one issued to him by the Juarez police: a lightweight hand-me-down from the U.S. Border Patrol. The department's vest, he says, doesn't stop most bullets from the guns used by drug cartels.

Adriane Jaeckle for NPR

Across the border from El Paso, Texas, rival drug gangs and the federal government are fighting for control of the city of Juarez.

Several hundred people have been killed since the beginning of the year. The local police are under attack on several fronts; the drug cartels have killed at least 18 police officers this year.

Juarez's mayor plans to fire a significant portion of the force over corruption allegations. And some police officers have started picketing in the streets, saying they don't have the resources they need to do their jobs.

Thin Police Resources

At the Aldama police station in Juarez, there are three working police cars in the parking lot. Next door in the repair yard, there is a line of some 3 dozen cruisers waiting to be fixed.

"All the ones you're looking at right here, they don't work," one officer says. "Flat tires, water pumps. The lights don't work. You mention it, they have it."

The lieutenant says police cars get pulled out of service for something as minor as a broken headlight; there are no spare parts to fix it, and the car can sit in the repair lot for weeks on end.

The man, a 15-year veteran of the force, doesn't want to be identified by name for several reasons. First, he's not authorized to talk to the press. Second, he's terrified that drug cartel members are trying to kill him.

And, the officer says, he and other police officers are often forced to break the law for their own protection.

Back inside the police station, he says the lack of functioning cruisers means many areas of the city have no police patrols. He pulls out a map of his district of Juarez, showing the 20 different sectors where officers are supposed to be assigned on this day.

Pointing to the map, he says, "Right here, there's no police car. Right here, there's no police car. Right here, there's no police car. Right here no police, no police," repeating himself for emphasis.

"There's supposed to be 20 [districts], and we are covering 10," the lieutenant says.

Earlier this year, one of Mexico's most powerful drug cartels posted a hit list threatening to kill 22 Juarez police officers.

In 2008, 18 officers — some who were on the list, some who weren't — have been assassinated. The killers left notes on some of the bodies accusing the officers of having ties to rival drug gangs.

A Problem of Protection

Off-duty officers in Juarez used to be allowed to carry their service revolvers home. But the federal police who've been sent to fight the drug cartels ordered a stop to that practice.

The lieutenant says officers are forced to bend this rule to protect themselves. For him, the scariest part of his day is driving to and from work. And he says never stops at red lights.

"I'm not going to stop. I'm not going to stop. I'm really not going to stop. I'm afraid for my life. I'm not going to stop," he says.

"Most of the shooting from the police officers [comes] when you stop at a red light," the officer says. "You stop, two cars come beside you. One blocks you. The other pulls out a gun and starts shooting. That's what happens."

He says that the Juarez Police Department doesn't have the resources it needs to patrol the streets, never mind to take on the heavily armed, well-financed drug cartels.

For instance, the officer bought his own flak jacket. If his cruiser gets a flat, he says, he pays to have it fixed. And his salary only equals about $800 a month. Despite this, being an officer is a reasonably good job in a place where employment can be scarce. And, he adds, you get health and pension benefits.

Juarez set a record for homicides in 2007, tallying 316. In the less than six months of 2008, there have been more than 500 killings, making 2008 the deadliest year in the city's history.

Jaime Torres Valadez, the spokesman for the Juarez police, agrees that the department doesn't have what it needs to deal with the current situation.

"We lack patrol cars," Torres says in Spanish. "We lack officers, we lack bulletproof jackets, we lack guns. Unfortunately, over the years the Police Department has been forgotten by the government."

Since the death threats by the drug cartels and the killings of so many officers, many others have quit. On top of this, the rank and file are upset over a new schedule that requires them to work 12 hour shifts, instead of 8.

The officers were supposed to get a 35 percent bonus for the longer days. For some reason, the extra pay has never materialized.

Questions of Loyalty

The Mayor of Juarez, Jose Reyes Ferriz, says the real problem in the Police Department right now is corruption. He's submitting the entire force to lie-detector and psychological tests.

"There are police officers that are not faithful to their calling as police officers and are acting for organized crime in Juarez," Reyes says. "And we know that. We don't know how many there are. We don't know who they are. But we know they're there, and we are trying to identify them."

Reyes says that any officer who fails the tests will be laid off.

"We probably are going to fire a large percentage of the police force," he says.

Creating a police force that the public can trust is one of the most pressing issues facing Juarez, Reyes says.

The city is working to train a thousand new recruits to hit the streets of Mexico's deadliest city by the end of the year.

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