TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - When Mexico sent hundreds of federal officers to clean up the corrupt local police in the rowdy border city of Tijuana this year, they were supposed to set an example of how to police responsibly.
But within days of the January operation, federal cops were filmed by police cameras extorting money from U.S. and Mexican tourists at road blocks in an embarrassment for President Felipe Calderon’s new government.
Endemic police corruption — ranging from traffic violation bribes to openly aiding drug gangs — is undermining Calderon’s attempt to crush powerful cartels with thousands of troops and federal police.
“There is barely a Mexican police officer along the U.S. border who isn’t involved in the drug trade. Even if you try to resist, your superiors pressure you into it or sideline you,” said a former mid-level Tijuana policeman who recently resigned from the force after he witnessed his boss receive a $5,000 bribe to turn a blind eye to drug smuggling.
Informal alliances between corrupt police and narco gangs are frustrating soldiers who set up road blocks, scour towns and search houses across Mexico for drugs and guns under Calderon’s military drive, which began last December.
“There are rats and moles within the police that alert the cartels to our operations. It’s hard to make progress with so many tip offs,” said an army sergeant on patrol in Tijuana.
In one high-profile case, federal police arrested a top detective in the western state of Michoacan in early May for possible links to drug cartels.
Badly paid and ill-equipped, patrol cops in Mexico have long supplemented their pay with small bribes from motorists and petty criminals. But the rise in the drug cartels’ power and their ability to take on the army in daylight battles has taken police corruption to a new level.
In a series of raids in Mexico’s richest city, Monterrey, in April, the state government arrested an unprecedented 141 police officers, accusing them of working for the powerful Gulf Cartel, which controls smuggling routes into Texas.
“There’s been a very intense campaign to buy the police (in Monterrey),” said Natividad Gonzalez, the governor of the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.
Some 1,000 people have been killed in Mexico so far in 2007 as a drive by the Sinaloa alliance of cartels headed by Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman — Mexico’s most wanted man — tries to dominate the Mexican drug trade and control smuggling routes.
Many of those killed are police who are deeply involved in Mexico’s $40 billion-a-year narcotics trade, drug experts say.
“In Tijuana, for instance, Guzman’s men are trying to take control of the Arellano-Felix cartel’s territory and that also means taking out the cartel’s police allies,” said Victor Clark at San Diego State University.
Monterrey has witnessed a record 60 drug-related executions this year, many of those police killings, as the Sinaloans fight the Gulf Cartel for control of local smuggling routes.
Still, some police are innocent and have a strong sense of public service that overcomes the low pay and lack of equipment. U.S. anti-drug officials often praise the bravery of honest Mexican cops working in tough conditions.
Police corruption has forced Calderon to turn to the army to fight drug gangs, which so far is seen as mostly uncorrupted by cartels.
But Mexico’s Human Rights Commission and the United Nations say using troops to combat drug capos is the wrong strategy because heavy-handed soldiers are likely to cause rights violations.
The commission says soldiers raped a teenage girl and sexually harassed three others in May in Michoacan state.
Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora says the solution is to reinvigorate the police and instigate a “cleansing” of corrupt officers. But honest cops are quitting the force because the low salaries do not justify the risks involved.
On average, police receive $375 a month, well below the $660 that even the government says is just enough for officers to feed their families and cover basic needs.
In some small border towns, officers receive as little as $300 a month, have threadbare uniforms and worn-out pistols and are expected to buy their own bullets.
Even in Tijuana, one of Mexico’s most violent border cities, police officers must buy their own bullets for target practice and body armor is in short supply.
Honest police are also despondent and frustrated because Mexico’s weak and corrupted justice system means the criminals they catch are often freed soon afterward.
Tijuana’s police chief, Luis Javier Algorri, blames the antiquated structure and methods of Mexico’s eight, disjointed national police forces and the hundreds of local forces, which he says engender weakness and corruption.
“Local police aren’t designed to combat organized crime. Officers are easily found at home, it’s easy to see what shifts they work. They can be threatened, bribed. We need special agents who go back to a base every night,” said Algorri.