ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Mexico's war against drugs and corruption is focusing on police officers. The government has temporarily replaced all of its top federal police officers, nearly 300 nationwide, pending investigations into corruption.
Joining us from Mexico City is NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. And, Lourdes, what led up to this purge?
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mexican President Felipe Calderon has made controlling the drug gangs a priority. He sent thousands of federal troops, army and police, to fight the cartels. But, of course, the problem is that there is a massive amount of corruption at every level here. The cartels have enormous resources - financial and in terms of manpower and arms. They can buy law enforcement off or they can intimidate law enforcement, which means that the security service has become infiltrated, which of course makes fighting organized crime that much harder.
And corruption in Mexico has become endemic, and there's a grave mistrust at the police at every level by regular citizens. So Felipe Calderon's top officials say they are trying to instill respect and honor in the institutions again. And that's why they've done this.
BLOCK: Now, we said that these men, these federal police officers have been temporarily replaced. Could they get their jobs back?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The men haven't been fired, not yet. They're going to undergo what Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, who announced the measure, is calling a trust test. That means that the officers will have to take anti-doping exams, polygraph, psychological reviews. There are going to be investigations of their friends, their family, and they are going to have their assets checked. One of the quickest signs of a corrupt cop is someone living beyond their means. So it's going to be a pretty comprehensive and total review.
BLOCK: And with these hundreds of federal police officers out, at least for now, who's being put in their place?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The men who are suspended have been replaced by others who have apparently already undergone the screening process. The government has been pretty cagey about what exactly prompted this action targeting this particular group. They're not saying if they have the goods on any specific one of these officers. Clearly, some of them must be implicated, but we don't know who are implicated and what exactly.
BLOCK: Has the Mexican government done something like this before - purge the police force in this way?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They have. A few months ago, they did this with the local police in Tijuana. They were put on suspension while they're being investigated, and it proved very controversial. I spoke with the local police there after it happened to them and they said that one of the biggest problems they had was that the honest cops felt undermined. They had somehow been tainted by association. And, of course, the big problem is that when the corrupt cops get fired, they got discovered, they often then go and join the ranks of organized crime, providing, sort of, key insider intelligence.
Just in April, the Nuevo Leon State Government arrested 141 state officers. It accused them of working for the Gulf Cartel and it's tricky here. A fired cop today could turn in to someone you're fighting tomorrow. So I think that's going to be one of the biggest challenges.
BLOCK: Lourdes, you also mentioned that the Mexican army has been brought in to work alongside the police. Is there any sense that the army is any less prone to corruption than the police have been?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the army has a very good reputation here, but that reputation is coming under fire because it's being used in this way. And there is a lot of discussion that perhaps the army could be tainted by the drug cartels as well. I mean, you do have the case of the infamous Zetas. They were an elite anti-crime force that belonged to the army. They ended up defecting in the late 1990s to work as assassins for the Gulf Cartel. So, you know, I don't think anyone is immune to this here.
BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Mexico City. Lourdes, thanks very much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.