ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Last week, the Mexican federal police announced they were firing 3,200 officers. That is 10 percent of the entire national force. And the justification was they were unfit for duty.
The violent border city of Juarez provides some insight into the troubles that have beset the national police. Recently, hundreds of federal cops took to the streets of Juarez in an extraordinary demonstration to accuse their commanders of colluding with the criminals they're supposed to be fighting.
NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: The images were striking, even in this embattled city that's the epicenter of Mexico's savage cartel war. Some 250 irate blue-uniformed federal cops gathered in the parking lot of their hotel and began punching their comandantes on live TV.
The protesting cops told TV cameras their commanders were forcing the rank and file to extort common citizens. And if the officers resisted, they were framed for bogus drug crimes.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: We're not all thieves. We're not all corrupt, a policeman in a ski mask tells a cameraman. There are those of us who like our work.
The federal police were supposed to be the cavalry that rode into Juarez last April to restore law and order. They replaced the disastrous deployment of the Mexican army in Juarez for the past two years - a period in which homicides soared, as did human rights abuses by the military.
Late last week, in fact, the State Department said it was withholding $26 million of U.S. security aid to Mexico until that country does more to investigate and prosecute human rights crimes by its security forces.
It appears some federal police have continued the misconduct of the soldiers they replaced. Since May, 50 of 60 complaints received by the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission for abuse of authority are against the federal police -for theft, extortion, kidnapping and murder.
One of those grievances comes from Ruben Martinez, a burly 47-year-old body shop owner and a former boxer. He claims a federal police lieutenant and captain tried to shake him down. And when he refused to pay, they arrested his 20-year-old son, Ruben Jr., a student at the Juarez Technical Institute.
Mr. RUBEN MARTINEZ: (Foreign language spoken)
BURNETT: They asked for $500 the first time, a thousand dollars the second time, he says. And then they didn't come back. That's when they took away my son.
Martinez says federal police entered his body shop on April 22nd, planted two packages of marijuana, then arrested his son for drug trafficking. Ruben Jr. remains jailed. His father says the police asked for a Ford Expedition in return for his son's freedom.
A federal police spokesman would not comment on the specifics of Martinez's accusation. He said any citizen can make a complaint against the authorities, and it's up to the public ministry to determine if charges should be filed.
The police protesters made even more serious accusations. They say their bosses are in league with organized crime. In this unusually explicit interview broadcast on Milenio TV, an anonymous hooded policeman explains how it works.
Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) There are times when the commanders tell us on the radio, we won't work today, don't leave the hotel. Then there are reports of convoys of trucks - that we believe work for the cartels -carrying shipments through Juarez. We're taken off the streets so that they can do their operations.
BURNETT: During the mutiny, police dragged their commander, Salomon Alarcon, alias the Shaman, out of his room into the parking lot. He was later arrested. The Mexican newsweekly Proceso recently reported that the Shaman was the top cop on the payroll of the Sinaloa Cartel, which is fighting the local Juarez Cartel for control of the city.
NPR reported in May, quoting U.S. federal court testimony and local law enforcement, that corrupt federal forces assigned to Juarez do use their authority to favor the Sinaloa Cartel.
What likely prompted the police mutiny is a grim, new development in the battle for Juarez. The local Juarez Cartel declared war on the federal police. They've killed more than two dozen federal officers, gruesomely dismembering some, because of the belief that the federales are helping the rival Sinaloa mafia.
Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, the longtime Chihuahua State Human Rights Commissioner, says patrol officers confided to him they were upset that their commanders' alliance with gangsters was getting them killed.
Mr. GUSTAVO DE LA ROSA HICKERSON (Human Rights Commission, Chihuahua State): (Through translator) So the crooked police were not only taking money from the enemy, they were playing with the enemy. So there was a major conflict between the dirty police and the officers who were losing their lives.
BURNETT: A federal police spokesman said the comandantes in Juarez, including The Shaman, are under investigation by the federal attorney general for corruption.
Meanwhile, the 250 mutinous police were all flown back to Mexico City to face charges of insubordination.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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