Monday, May 29, 2006

Mexico's leftist candidate backs army in drug war

The Washington Post

Nuevo Laredo, Mexico (Reuters) - The leftist candidate in Mexico's presidential race vowed on Saturday to give more power to the army to fight violent drug gangs, which he said have hopelessly corrupted the country's police force.

Mexico has been in the grip of a drug war between rival cartels since last year and some 1,500 people have been shot, beaten or suffocated to death as bands of gunmen battle for control of the lucrative cocaine, heroin and marijuana trade.

"I'm going to create a legal initiative to reform the constitution and give more power to the army in the war against organized crime," Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told supporters in Nuevo Laredo, a city of 300,000 people that is on the front line of the turf war.

Failed attempts by past presidents to purge the country's top law enforcement officials of the influence of wealthy narco bosses make it clear they are a lost cause, he said.

"There has been enough experimenting," Lopez Obrador said. "Every six years they try to clean up the attorney general's office and it ends up completely infiltrated and totally involved in illegal acts."

The army is already key in what President Vicente Fox has dubbed Mexico's "mother of all battles" against drug gangs from the western state of Sinaloa and the local Gulf cartel.

Fox's six-year term ends this year and Lopez Obrador, who promises to make the country's poor his priority, holds second place in opinion polls ahead of the July 2 vote.

Mexico's police forces are riddled with corruption.

The entire city police force in Nuevo Laredo was suspended last year to investigate apparent links to drug cartels, and many of those officers were later dismissed.

Also last year, the government acknowledged that hundreds of members of an elite police force modeled on the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation had been bought by drug gangs and eight of them were charged with kidnapping.

Many experts consider Mexico's military, which is better equipped to shoot it out with heavily armed drug gangs, to be more honest than municipal, state and federal police.

But troops, including an elite anti-drug commando unit called the Zetas, have also defected to narco gangs.

Drug gang violence has traditionally been concentrated in Mexico's northern states along the U.S. border, but it is steadily increasing in other regions, including the resort town of Acapulco, which in recent months has seen grenade attacks and beheadings of police officers.


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