Pubdate: Thu, 17 May 2007
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Los Angeles Times
Author: Sam Enriquez and Hector Tobar, Times Staff Writers


Critics Say They Fear That Calderon's Use Of The Ill-Prepared Army 
Could Corrupt 'The Last Honest Institution.'

APATZINGAN, MEXICO -- Flying low over the colonial City Hall, the 
helicopters of the Mexican army are supposed to make people feel 
safe. But to many here, they are simply a reminder of the war 
unfolding around them.

The police chief was wounded in an ambush Tuesday and resigned 
Wednesday, the second top law-enforcement official to flee this 
agricultural city tucked in the mountains of southern Michoacan state.

At least five drug-trafficking organizations operate in and around 
Apatzingan. The city rapidly has become the front line of President 
Felipe Calderon's campaign to fight back against the traffickers by 
deploying army troops.

Critics say the army is illprepared for the mission, and that 
Calderon is putting Mexico's most trusted security force at risk.

"It's like a poker game and Calderon has put the army on the table," 
Antonio Ramos, a longtime local newspaper and television commentator, 
said in an interview. "The risk now is corrupting the last honest 
institution, the army. The truth is the army doesn't have the capacity to win."

The mayor here sees little alternative.

"We're waiting for the level of safety that we all want," Antonio 
Cruz Lucatero said. "Not just in our city, but the whole state and 
the whole country."

In January, the president donned an army cap and jacket and came to 
Apatzingan to tell soldiers stationed here that they were fighting a 
"head-on battle against crime."

Nearly five months later, on May 7, soldiers from the 51st Infantry 
Battalion battled a group of traffickers holed up in a home in the 
city center. Four suspected traffickers were killed in the gun fight, 
in which soldiers also used grenades.

The battle was captured on video and broadcast later on national television.

Since winning a narrow victory in last year's presidential election, 
Calderon has made the war on drugs the centerpiece of his presidency. 
He has sent troops to Michoacan and neighboring Guerrero state, and 
to the border cities of Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo.

However, Calderon may stretch the army's resources and could 
undermine its popularity. Mexico's military boasts more than 200,000 
troops, but only 90,000 are combat-ready, said Javier Ibarrola, a 
military analyst in Mexico City.

About 30,000 troops are employed nationwide in the anti-drug 
campaign. Ibarrola and other analysts say the army would be 
hard-pressed to get more soldiers into the effort.

The army is straining under the budgetary pressures and 
inefficiencies that affect many institutions in Mexico. Low wages 
lead to a high rate of desertion. One in eight soldiers simply packs 
and up leaves every year.

Meanwhile, many question the legality of using the military to carry 
out police functions.

"The army has declared a de facto state of siege in these places," 
said Raul Benitez, a professor specializing in security issues at 
American University in Washington. "It has done so without the 
necessary judicial steps required for a state of siege.... But the 
truth is the Mexican government doesn't have any other operations 
force it can send in."

Mexico's official human rights ombudsman on Tuesday called on 
Calderon to refrain from using the army in the anti-drug efforts, 
citing dozens of alleged human rights abuses, including rapes, 
attributed to soldiers in Michoacan.

Army troops have been stationed in the southern Mexican state since 
December, after Mayor Cruz Lucatero said he needed help combating a 
force of hit men working in the city for the Gulf cartel.

Troops began to patrol the city. This week, they were unable to 
prevent the attack on Apatzingan's interim police chief, Jose Alfredo 
Zavala Perez, who was shot and wounded Tuesday in an ambush.

On Wednesday, shortly after being treated and released at a local 
hospital, Zavala Perez resigned, leaving the police force leaderless.

Zavala Perez had replaced a chief who walked off the job last July. 
The old chief, under a cloud of suspicion of links to drug bosses, 
announced that he was taking a "vacation," from which he never returned.

"The attack was not against me, personally," Zavala Perez said in a 
radio interview Wednesday after fleeing Apatzingan with his family. 
"It was an attack on the institution."

Such vacuums of power in local police departments have become common 
in Mexico. Since 2005, dozens of police chiefs and officers have 
abruptly resigned after encounters with drug traffickers in several 
Mexican states, including Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche.

Federal police have been of little help. The Federal Judicial Police 
force, notoriously corrupt, was disbanded. An effort to remake the 
federal police is only beginning. The elite Federal Investigation 
Agency was created in 2001, but has not shed that corruption legacy, 
analysts said.

Last week, the president created the Corps of Federal Support Forces, 
an army unit specializing in antidrug efforts. The unit will answer 
directly to his office.

"Everyone who studies this problem has the same diagnosis," said 
Benitez of American University. "It's urgent to professionalize all 
aspects of police work: prevention, investigation, and intelligence 
against organized crime. The police need more resources, better 
training and better technology."

But police and judicial reform probably will take years to produce 
results. Until then, there is the army, an institution that struggles 
to retain its personnel.

Lieutenants and other low-ranking army officers earn monthly salaries 
ranging from $400 to $600. Many desert or resign each year to join 
private-sector security companies. A few join the traffickers.

"A drug-trafficking group can afford to pay a soldier several times 
what he earns in the army," said Jose Luis Pineyro, a Mexico City 
specialist on military issues. "There isn't a government in the world 
that can compete with what drug traffickers can pay."

To keep its elite Special Forces troops from deserting to the drug 
cartels, as several dozen have done, the army recently raised the 
monthly salary for soldiers to about $1,100. Pineyro said the cartels 
simply doubled that amount as the standard pay for their own "troops."

Drug-trafficking groups have been drawn to the area for its fertile 
soil and convenient geography. The same qualities once made the area 
the center of an agricultural boom in the 1970s, when thousands of 
acres of cotton provided work. Water is plentiful, and the port at 
Lazaro Cardenas is only 90 minutes away.

The boom crops are now opium poppies, which are processed into 
heroin, and marijuana. Cocaine shipped by sea from Colombia passes 
through by the ton, U.S. drug experts say. Chemicals from China are 
cooked into methamphetamine at clandestine labs.

Rugged hillsides and protection money have made drug enforcement 
impossible. Traffickers take advantage of long-standing family 
relationships, as well as ambitious residents with few other means of 
getting ahead.

The so-called Sinaloa, Juarez, and Milenio cartels form one alliance 
in the region, the Gulf cartel and La Familia another.

"They are people with little education or culture but a lot of 
money," columnist Ramos said of the traffickers. "Their fights are 
emotional. They are motivated by anger and pride. And they fight like 
people with empty stomachs."

One such fight was the May 7 battle on Melchor de Talamantes street. 
On Wednesday, half a dozen city police stood guard over the one-story 
brick house where three men and a woman died in the shootout with soldiers.

Locals say that the freshly painted houses in the neighborhood are 
evidence of the illicit money that is pouring into Apatzingan.

Armando Bustos, the city police officer in charge of guarding the 
crime scene, said he had lived for seven years in Southern 
California's San Gabriel Valley, working at a car wash and living 
with an uncle, before returning home to Mexico.

"Am I scared? The whole world is scared," Bustos, 28, said in 
English. "I went to Alhambra High School and I'd go back there in a 
minute if I could. I think I will. This is too freaking dangerous."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman