Crooked Cops Weaken Mexico's War on Drugs Even as Mexico intensifies its war on drugs, law officers undermine the effort by taking bribes from drug cartels. It starts when a detainee offers a large amount of money to a law officer. Once accepted, the official slowly becomes a part of the mafia.
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Crooked Cops Weaken Mexico's War on Drugs

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Crooked Cops Weaken Mexico's War on Drugs

Crooked Cops Weaken Mexico's War on Drugs

Crooked Cops Weaken Mexico's War on Drugs

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Even as Mexico intensifies its war on drugs, law officers undermine the effort by taking bribes from drug cartels. It starts when a detainee offers a large amount of money to a law officer. Once accepted, the official slowly becomes a part of the mafia.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Drug wars in Mexico have left more than a thousand people dead so far this year, and Mexico's president has met that violence with force. He has deployed thousands of security forces to combat competing drug cartels. But even as that fight is being waged, it's being undermined by a police force riddled with corruption and complicity with the drug gangs.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Tijuana.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Adela Navarro leans over the computer and opens her Tijuana-based newspaper's Web page. She's the editor of the well-respected Zeta. It's one of the few outfits that still covers the drug trade along the border despite the threats it often receives. Popping up on the screen is the video of a disheveled-looking man, an ex-commander of the Tijuana judicial police called Jose Ramon Velasquez Molina, who was killed days before this video was delivered to the newspaper. These are the words of a dead man.

Mr. JOSE RAMON VELASQUEZ MOLINA (Former Commander, Tijuana Judicial Police): (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they are explosive words. He says here that the attorney general of Baja, California protects members of the Sinoloa Cartel. In the video, Velasquez is clearly under duress. His eyes dart around and his face is lacquered in sweat. He's being interrogated by someone off-camera; Adela Navarro believes possibly a member of a rival cartel.

MS. ADELA NAVARRO (Editor, Zeta): (Through translator) It's clearly a group that's being affected by the attorney general's office for either the right reasons or the wrong reasons. If the attorney general is doing his job correctly, and he's hurting their operations, these men may have decided to take revenge. But it may also have been because the attorney general is corrupt and is favoring a rival cartel. This is something that an investigation should uncover.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Adela Navarro says though the video turned up early last month, there has been no investigation as of yet, even though the body of the man in the video was discovered in front of the house of the attorney general's girlfriend. NPR spoke with the accused attorney general, Antonio Martinez Luna. He denied the charges, saying that they were made to discredit him and his work fighting the drug gangs.

Mr. ANTONIO MARTINEZ LUNA (Attorney General, Baja, California): I've never dealt and I never will deal with organized crime as far as providing any type of assistance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, the video has again highlighted the problem of corruption in the ranks of the very people tasked with fighting the drug trade; and Tijuana, says Adela Navarro, faces the issue worse than other places in Mexico.

Ms. NAVARRO: (Through translator) The major problem with the police here is corruption. The forces are infiltrated by organized crime, whether it be narco traffickers, kidnappers or human smugglers. This is because Tijuana is close to California and the United States. That brings a lot of advantages regarding legitimate trade. But it also means that the drug gangs are strong here. All those drugs have to be transported to the other side. And to do that, the traffickers need to have the logistical support of the police. It's a necessity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a problem that is admitted to privately by police. NPR spoke to an active-duty municipal policeman in Tijuana who does not want to have his name publicized for fear of being killed. He also asked to have his voice disguised. At his request, we met in a crowded, noisy restaurant where he explained to me how so many cops go bad.

Unidentified Man #1 (Policeman, Tijuana): (Through translator) It happens when you detain someone. That person will usually offer you money in a large amount, and when you accept it that's when the narcos brainwash you so that you cooperate with them. And then slowly, slowly, the cops become part of the mafia. We call the corrupt cops metros - slang for mafiosos.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Drug kingpins have millions of dollars to spend in suborning law enforcement, so he says the corruption goes from the highest level to the lowest. But money isn't the only method of intimidation. Plata Oplomo(ph) means silver or lead. Many cops have received messages which mean they are marked men.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) It's a very common tactic of the metro to intimidate people who don't want to go along with them. They send them black flowers or funeral wreaths.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a free-for-all in Tijuana now. All the different cartels are represented here and they're all battling for control. And within the police, he says, they all have their own paid allies, which means there are sometimes shoot-outs between the security forces themselves. He says there is that crucial moment when the drug cartels come for you and you have to make a choice.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) If you don't take the money from them, they'll kill you. And if you do take the money, you'll end up dead too. So what do you do in that moment? It's something I think about a lot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But of course not all cops are bad; and working in Mexico isn't easy.

(Soundbite of police radio)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On this day, a group of municipal cops is out on patrol in downtown Tijuana.

So I'm on the street with a local Tijuana police and in order to understand what they're up against, you don't really need to look any further than the newspaper headlines here. A newspaper - I'm holding in my hands - has a front-page story on how a municipal police station in the border state of Nuevo Leon was attacked by Norco gunmen yesterday. They had grenades and machine guns and their assault wounded at least four cops.

Across the country, cops complain of low wages and bad equipment. The Mexican government says that many of the superior weapons carried by the drug gunmen come from the United States, where gun laws are lax compared to Mexico. Of course it didn't help morale here when President Felipe Calderon sent federal troops to Tijuana and proceeded to disarm the local police force. Tests will run on their guns to see if any had been used in crimes. Aurelio Martinez is the patrol chief for the Tijuana Municipal Police.

Mr. AURELIO MARTINEZ (Patrol Chief, Tijuana Municipal Police): (Through translator) We didn't think it was right that they came here to try and discredit us - the whole corps. It should have been more professional. They should have done some previous intelligence, some previous investigation against certain members. They shouldn't have judged all of us. It was a lynching of the whole force. It hurts the city's image and our image.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And the federal forces are hardly untarnished either. A video in January caught federal cops in Tijuana extorting money from U.S. and Mexican tours at road blocks. The head of public security in Tijuana, Luis Javier Algori, says that to combat corruption among his forces, he's raised salaries significantly and provided them mortgage and scholarship programs.

Mr. LUIS JAVIER ALGORI: (Through translator) We prevent this by bettering their standard of living, so that they have a dignified life and can pay for their expenses.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Algori says he has had to fire 192 dirty cops since the beginning of the year out of an active police force of 2,700. Tijuana has been trying to clean up its image. The city has initiated a program called (Spanish spoken) or No Bribes. It's designed to stop cops from taking money from drivers who want to get out of traffic tickets. It was launched last week with a parade of motorcycle-mounted officers speeding off into Tijuana's busy streets - they left with alacrity. Five percent of the ticket fines will now be paid directly to them. Algori says this was not institutionalizing bribery; rather simply getting them an incentive.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Tijuana.

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