Sunday, November 8, 2009

Amid Rising Violence, Mexicans Fight Back

A soldier guards policemen from the town of García who were detained after the shooting of the police chief on Wednesday
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in the northern town of García, near the industrial hub of Monterrey in Nuevo León state, the town's new police chief, retired Brig. Gen. Juan Arturo Esparza, was gunned down in an attack by some 30 assailants believed to be working for a drug cartel. Five of his bodyguards also died.

Mr. Esparza was responding to a call for help from García's mayor, who told the police chief that five vehicles with heavily armed men had just sprayed his house with bullets. Mr. Esparza had just taken over as police chief on Oct. 31. He is one of scores of military men taking over policing duties across Mexico because of police corruption. On Thursday, Mexican soldiers entered the town and held some 60 policemen for questioning about the killings, stripping the police of their weapons.

Mexico's war on drugs took a grim twist this week, as a prominent mayor said he had created an undercover group of operatives to "clean up" criminal elements -- even if it had to act outside the law. Underscoring why the mayor may have felt compelled to take such steps, the new police chief in a neighboring town, a retired brigadier general, was shot and killed Wednesday, four days after taking up his post.

Mauricio Fernández, mayor of San Pedro Garza García, said this week he had created a special group to 'clean up' criminal elements in the municipality

"We're tired of sitting around on our hands and waiting for daddy or mommy Calderón to come to fix our fights. We in San Pedro took the decision to grab the bull by the horns," Mr. Fernández said in a radio interview. "Even acting outside the limits of my role as mayor, I will end the kidnappings, extortions and drug trafficking. We are going to do this by whatever means, fair or foul."

Asked if his new squad would operate outside the law, Mr. Fernández said: "In some ways, that's right. What the criminals want is that they can break every law, but that we have to respect every law. Well, I don't get that."

The comments ignited a firestorm. Analysts say that as local and federal officials in Mexico struggle to fight the cartels, they could be tempted to follow in the footsteps of Colombia, where paramilitary gangs and death squads killed thousands of suspected leftists, criminals, and drug traffickers in the late 1990s and early part of this decade.

"This is where we've come in our war on drugs," says Leo Zuckerman, a political analyst in Mexico City. "A mayor justifies, brags, and celebrates that he has carried out justice by his own hands, outside the judicial institutions. This is bad news for those of us who believe that a civilized society is one where criminals get due process."

Interior Minister Fernando Gómez Mont on Thursday criticized the statements by Mr. Fernández, who previously served as a federal senator in Mr. Calderon's conservative PAN party. "The Mexican state, in its different levels, can't act above or beyond the law. Whoever does so is ... a lawbreaker, and we can't accept using criminals to resolve the problem of crime." The Mexican attorney general's office, which could investigate the killings of the four men, said it had no comment.

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