By Ignacio Alvarado
CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico, April 21 (Reuters) - Mexican troops are failing to provide basic security in the violent border city of Ciudad Juarez, residents say, testing support for President Felipe Calderon’s army-led assault on drug gangs.
Some 2,500 soldiers and federal police swept into Ciudad Juarez over the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas last month with heavy weaponry and helicopters to quell a surge in drug murders as gangs fight over smuggling routes into the United States.
Soldiers have taken over many security tasks from the often corrupt city police, making dozens of arrests and seizing arms and narcotics but the fight against common crime has apparently suffered.
While crime statistics are hard to come by, many residents say bank robberies, burglaries, vehicle theft, kidnappings and assaults have risen sharply over the past month, as criminal gangs take advantage of a security vacuum.
Dozens of local police have quit, either under pressure from military accusations of corruption or angered by army plans to seize their weapons and purge their ranks.
Ciudad Juarez’s city police force says it now has only 200 officers patrolling a city of 1.6 million people at any one time, less than half the normal levels before the troops arrived.
Some police say they are too intimidated by the army to go on the beat, and residents say patrol cars that used to pass their homes nightly have stopped coming.
"The situation has never been this bad. The police have just stopped patrolling the city. There’s no point in calling them if you get robbed," said local salesman Luis Marquez who just had his car stolen.
A record 1,100 cars were stolen in March and police say men are holding up banks and convenience stores on an almost daily basis, some with toy pistols.
While Ciudad Juarez is notorious for the unsolved murders of hundreds of women over the past decade, residents say that despite corruption, the police did stop petty crime.
"We haven’t been asked to take part in local security operations. There’s no coordination between the army, the federal police and ourselves," said city police spokesman Jaime Torres.
Protecting ordinary citizens is crucial for Calderon as he seeks to maintain public backing for his army-led assault on the drug cartels.
He has sent out some 25,000 troops and federal police to fight the drug gangs since taking office in Dec. 2006 but faces criticism from rights groups for his military strategy.
Support for the army is still strong nationwide, and most residents of Ciudad Juarez, where a record 230 people have been killed in drugs violence this year, say they do want the army to stop the murders.
"But the presence of the military has not fostered confidence or peace for people here, and people only have so much patience," said Hector Padilla, a security expert at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez.
Despite government television and newspaper advertisements promoting the army and federal police in Ciudad Juarez, there have been some protests against the troops.
Demonstrators say the army’s purge of drug gangs is chaotic, excessively violent and that federal forces have failed to weed out corrupt local police, while also failing to address the underlying causes of corruption such as low pay.
Cipriana Jurado, a local rights activist who was arrested by federal police at a recent protest, said the army is torturing city police suspected of drug-related crimes with beatings and electric shocks.
"I don’t know if they’re guilty, but torture is not the way to solve this situation," she said.
Mexico’s human rights commission has accused soldiers of robbing city police officers in Ciudad Juarez and stripping off their clothes before interrogation.
The army denies any wrongdoing and says the protests against them are financed by the city’s main drug gang, the Juarez cartel. (Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Kieran Murray)