Ciudad Juarez, Mexico: Troubled Town’s Police Force Quits After Fatal Attacks By Gunmen

5 Aug

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) — An entire 20-man police force resigned in a northern Mexican town after a series of attacks that killed the police chief and five officers over the last three months, state officials said Thursday.

EDS. NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT - A Mexican army soldier takes a photo of a dead man after a gun battle between army soldiers and gunmen in the northern city of Monterrey, Mexico Wednesday July 13, 2011. According to local media, the gunmen ran into a perimeter being secured by army and state police and a firefight ensued, leaving all 4 gunmen dead. Four assault rifles and a 9mm handgun were seized. (AP Photo/Hans Maximo Musielik)

The officers’ resignation Thursday left the 13,000 people of Ascension without local police services, Chihuahua state chief prosecutor Carlos Manuel Salas said. State and federal police have moved in to take over police work, he said.

The mass resignation appeared to be connected to a Tuesday attack by gunmen that killed three of the town’s officers, Salas said.

But it wasn’t the first deadly attack on the police department this year.

In mid-May, police chief Manuel Martinez, who had been in office just seven months, was gunned down with two other officers on a nearby highway. The three had been kidnapped a day before police found their bodies riddled with bullets in the back seat of a sedan.

The town’s police force was relatively new.

Angry residents had led authorities to replace the entire force last September after the mob killings of two teenagers who had allegedly kidnapped a girl from a seafood restaurant. People claimed police officers were aiding drug gangs.

Martinez, with his new police force, had said he wanted to end the kidnappings and extortions that have terrorized the town where people grow green chili and cotton.

The new police in Ascension had installed a telescopic camera in the town’s plaza that rotated, giving officers at the station the ability to zoom on a site as far as the outskirts of town.

In addition, townspeople helped police dig a broad ditch around the town to prevent criminals from escaping on back roads.

Ascension is southwest of Ciudad Juarez, the border city across from El Paso, Texas, that is one of Mexico’s most violent cities. The state of Chihuahua has had the most homicides blamed on organized crime and drug trafficking since the government’s anti-drug offensive began in December 2006.

Elsewhere, the Defense Department announced that a 19-day offensive in northern states against the Zetas drug cartel had resulted in the shooting deaths of 30 alleged criminals and a soldier.

The army said that among those killed was Jorge Luis de la Pena, the Zetas boss for Nuevo Laredo, the city across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas.

Troops also detained 196 people in different cities during operation “North Lynx.”

The Zetas gang, known for its viciousness, has been fighting its former ally, the Gulf cartel, in Mexico’s north since early 2010.

Near the northern industrial hub of Monterrey, police found the bodies of two men each hanging by an ankle from a pedestrian bridge. Officers said a witness reported that gunmen strung up the men alive and then shot them.

Such grisly displays at bridges have become common in and around Monterrey as well as in other Mexican cities torn by drug violence.

___

Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon in Mexico City contributed to this report.

NEWS UPDATE:

EDS. NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT - Mexican army soldiers stand guard as forensic experts inspect the scene after a gun battle between army soldiers and gunmen in the northern city of Monterrey, Mexico Wednesday July 13, 2011. According to local media, the gunmen ran into a perimeter being secured by army and state police and a firefight ensued, leaving all 4 gunmen dead. Four assault rifles and a 9mm handgun were seized. (AP Photo/Hans Maximo Musielik)

EDS. NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT – Mexican army soldiers stand guard as forensic experts …

MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) — The northern city of Monterrey, once Mexico’s symbol of development and prosperity, is fast becoming a new Ciudad Juarez.

Drug-related murders this year are on pace to double last year’s and triple those of the year before in the once-tranquil industrial hub. In recent weeks a tortured, screaming teenager was hung alive from a bridge. Two of the governor’s bodyguards were dismembered and dumped with messages threatening the state leader.

Last week, gunmen killed 20 people in a bar where Ziplock bags of drugs were found, the largest mass murder to date in the metro area of 4 million people. The toll continued this week: 14 were killed in separate hits on Wednesday, eight more on Thursday.

Officials say two cartels turned the city upside down practically overnight when they split in early 2010 and are trying to outdo each other with grisly displays.

Security officials acknowledge they don’t know how much worse it will get.

“As long as there are consumers and a critical mass of young people for these gangs to recruit, it’s hard to imagine the number (of killings) will go down,” said Jorge Domene, state security spokesman for Nuevo Leon state, where Monterrey is located.

The scale of the killings has rarely been seen in Mexico outside border cities such Juarez, Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo, the main gateways for drugs passing into the United States that have seen dramatic surges of violence since President Felipe Calderon intensified Mexico’s crackdown on organized crime in 2006.

And fear is starting to fray the social order. Concern over violence has caused enrollment to drop at the prestigious home campus of Mexico’s top private university, the Technology Institute of Monterrey, which has had to lay off some employees.

The chamber of industry in a brash, proud city where the annual income per capita is double the national average didn’t want to talk to The Associated Press about the impact of violence on business, though some executives acknowledge they’ve had to spend more on security.

Shirt factory owner Gilberto Marcos, a member of a citizens’ council on security, said some businesses have clearly faced extortion from drug gangs, though few cases are reported.

The Gulf Cartel once controlled drug running through Monterry, and Mexico’s third-largest city had a reputation as a quiet, safe place. Where drug traffickers were present, they avoided creating problems, hiding their families amid neighborhoods of corporate executives.

The violence exploded when the Zetas broke away from the Gulf Cartel, creating a struggle for control of the area. The fight has left more than 1,000 people dead so far this year in Nuevo Leon state, compared to 828 in 2010 and 267 in 2009.

In wealthier parts of the area, restaurants are still packed and people still jog and walk their dogs at night. In poorer suburbs, though, entire blocks have been held up by gunmen and young people snatched off the streets.

Monterrey has still not reached the desperation of Ciudad Juarez, which was always a much grittier city and is now considered one of the world’s most dangerous after more 3,000 people were killed last year. There, extortion, killings and torchings of businesses have devastated the local economy and sent people fleeing across the border to El Paso, Texas.

But Monterrey is rapidly growning more violent even as murders in Juarez have begun to drop.

Gangs in Monterrey hung the battered body of a topless woman from a freeway overpass last December and more recently two young men were tied to ropes, dangled from an overpass and shot in the midst of rush-hour traffic. One survived.

Sister Consuelo Morales, director of the Citizens in Support of Human Rights, said about 70 families have come to her for help in finding sons and daughters kidnapped off the streets or from their own homes.

One couple, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation, said their son, an 18-year-old university linguistics major, was abducted by a dozen gunmen who broke into their home one night in January.

Their best hope is that he is working for a cartel.

“We have this hope that they have him packing drugs or money,” said his father, a taxi driver who quit working to search for his son full time.

The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas broke apart over the killing of a Zeta in the border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas, in January 2010. Since then, they have made a war zone of northeastern Mexico, even as the federal government has mounted a special operation to stop the violence with thousands of military and police reinforcements.

The federal government has made a show of force in Tamaulipas state in Mexico’s northeast corner, where the Zetas are blamed for slaughtering 72 migrants nearly a year ago, then kidnapping bus passengers and burying them in mass graves. Domene said that has only pushed the violence westward into Nuevo Leon.

Local and state government can’t fight back because much of their police forces have been corrupted or coerced by the gangs.

Nuevo Leon state Gov. Rodrigo Medina has promised to purge bad elements from law enforcement, but critics say his government has moved too slowly. So far only three of the state’s 51 municipalities have fully vetted their police departments, Domene said.

In Guadalupe, a suburb of 700,000 badly hit by the violence, only 100 of 800 police officers remain after the new mayor began purging her police department a year and a half ago, he added.

Last month, the dismembered bodies of two of Gov. Medina’s bodyguards were dumped in Guadalupe with a message accusing him of favoring one of the cartels. It didn’t say which one.

On Thursday, Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas inaugurated the first of nine permanent checkpoints that will be manned by soldiers and federal and state police on all major roads leading in and out of the city. The first is on a federal toll road between Monterrey and Reynosa, a highway that used to be traveled by shoppers heading to Texas.

The state also recently opened a police academy, where recruits have to have at least a junior high-school education, be in good physical and have no criminal record. While that seems minimal by other countries’ standards, Mexican forces have traditionally been made up of poorly educated, low-paid workers who receive little training.

The first group of 422 officers will graduate in September after five months’ training. Another 1,600 are expected to be trained by the end of the year, Domene said.

Nuevo Leon officials have proposed dissolving all local police departments, which in general are among the most corrupt in Mexico, to create one force of 14,000 newly trained and vetted state officers by 2015. But the proposal has stalled in the local legislature.

For Marcos, the government’s efforts to improve security in the state come too little too late.

He said residents had been pushing for the government to do more on security since at least 2005, when drug violence tore apart nearby Nuevo Laredo, the border city across from Laredo, Texas.

The Sinaloa and Gulf cartels were fighting for control there. The Gulf won the fight, backed by their then-allies, the Zetas.

“They ignored us because it wasn’t politically convenient to address the problems then,” Marcos said. “We said this could become a serious problem and look at us now.”

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