MEXICO CITY/CIUDAD JUAREZ (Reuters) - Mexico is spending on its federal police forces like never before as it fights powerful drug cartels, trying to overcome a long history of corruption, abuse and incompetence.
For Antonia Renteria and for many others, the effort has failed.
Renteria accuses federal agents of torturing her two sons into false confessions in Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border.
They were arrested last year as suspects in a deadly car bomb blast and Renteria says her 20-year-old son Victor, who worked at a recycling plant, was beaten and raped in police custody.
“Do they protect us? No, they are the attackers,” Renteria, an unemployed housekeeper said in the living room of her modest home.
Since taking office in late 2006, President Felipe Calderon has pumped up the public security ministry’s budget threefold, growing federal police ranks from 6,000 agents to 35,000 now.
Financial aid from the United States has helped pay for top-of-the-line equipment and training aimed at creating a model force to outperform inefficient and underpaid state and municipal officers, often accused of working for drug gangs.
But the results have so far not met the government’s hopes, and reports of abuses across the country are rising.
Complaints of rights violations by the federal police — including arbitrary detention and torture — last year reached almost 600, quadruple those filed in 2006, according to the national human rights commission, or CNDH.
The charges often do not go very far. Between December 2006 and June 2010 there have only been 41 investigations into accusations of torture and of those, just one went to trial, according to the attorney general’s office.
Widespread abuse charges reflect a deeper problem in Mexican security forces — sub-par investigative skills and low salaries that can be a hook for wealthy drug gangs looking to put police on their payrolls.
Corrupt local cops in the border city are a key part of the drugs trade and helped form La Linea, the enforcement arm of the Juarez cartel.
Recognizing the weaknesses of the police, Calderon pulled in the army and the marines to take a leading role in the drugs war. They have captured or killed several senior traffickers but Calderon is well aware that strong police work is critical for any kind of lasting solution.
He proposed a unified police command to dissolve municipal forces that fail background checks or hand them over to state authorities, but the checks are behind schedule. Reforms passed by Congress in 2008 to introduce oral trials and improve Mexico’s justice system are also moving slowly.
The drugs war has killed more than 44,000 people since Calderon became president. With no end in sight to the violence and his efforts to clean up the police falling short, his conservative National Action Party, or PAN, is way behind in early polls ahead of the presidential election next July.
The polls show the main opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party with a big lead as it looks to regain the presidency after a decade on the sidelines.
Calderon’s office did not respond for requests for comments on the CNDH findings but it says his strategy is showing results with the capture of major gang leaders and a drop in homicides in violent cities like Ciudad Juarez, where murders fell to 1,550 so far this year from 3,622 killings in 2010.
Still, the overall number of drug-related murders is still rising and improved security in some places has not cured a deep mistrust of the police.
Forty-six percent of Mexicans surveyed said they have little or no confidence in federal police and local police fared even worse at 60 percent in a survey last month on security perceptions by the national statistics agency.
Denting public support is a big jump in unauthorized raids by security forces, which have more than tripled from 2005, including one on the home of a well-known, elderly poet in August. Even more raids go unreported.
“People are afraid to present complaints. Or it happens so often they think it’s normal,” said the CNDH’s Marat Paredes.
In one case last month, a convoy of two dozen federal police burst into the home of “Amelia” in a lower middle class neighborhood in Mexico City in search of her nephew, who has suspected links to organized crime.
Guided by two bound suspects in the back of their trucks, and no search warrant, federal agents entered her family’s small compound hunting for the 21-year-old, forcing her husband and son to kneel at gunpoint.
“They had (my nephew’s) wife on the ground splayed out like Christ pointing a machine gun at her head ... His brother was sleeping with his baby and they dragged him out, hitting him with their pistols on his head and back,” said Amelia.
When it was all over, the law enforcers left with no arrests but not empty-handed — nearly $450, an iPad, a leather jacket and several cell phones were missing, she said.
Amelia, who asked that her real name not be used, said if the agents had simply explained who they were looking for and why, she would have cooperated, but the rough treatment ruined her opinion of the police.
“They say they’re cleaning up organized crime to put an end to all the drugs and trafficking. But at what cost?”
(Editing by Kieran Murray)