One of the main doors of the police station here is riddled with bullet holes. Shrapnel from grenades scars nearby walls. Inside, a makeshift shrine to the Virgin Mary honors three local officers who died in the past year fighting Mexico's drug traffickers.
So far, it's been a one-sided battle. The police force in Uruapan, a city of 280,000 that sits astride a major smuggling route in the Sierra Madre mountains, doesn't have a single detective. Mexican law prevents local police from questioning witnesses, doing undercover work or searching homes. The department is so poor that officers must buy their own bullets, at about 75 cents a pop, for target practice.
"We're the ones out there every day, the easy targets for the drug traffickers," says Police Chief Adolfo Medina, whose house was hit by gunfire in March. "But we're handicapped."
That may be changing. As Mexico's U.S.-funded drug war reaches new levels of violence, President Felipe Calderón's government has launched a $1 billion drive to train and equip beleaguered local police forces that, historically, focused on rounding up town drunks or dishing out traffic violations.
The goal, Calderón says, is to produce competent and non-corrupt local police forces that can fight alongside Mexico's federal police and army — which, until now, have done most of the heavy lifting in the anti-drug fight.
More than 11,500 people have died in drug-related violence nationwide, including hundreds of police, since Calderón took office in 2006. Despite his vow to destroy the cartels, they still control 90% of the cocaine that flows into the USA, and some violence from their turf wars has spilled into Georgia, Arizona and other states.
Improving Mexico's police will require not just more money, but a change of culture, commanders say. Police forces in several cities including Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, have been purged of hundreds of officers who were found to be on the cartels' payroll. Many officers in Uruapan admit they still routinely accept bribes to supplement their salaries, which run as low as $460 a month.
"For so many years, being a police officer was seen as a part-time job, something you did when you couldn't get anything better," says Daniel Anaya, the assistant police chief in Uruapan. "We have to convince people that this is a profession and a career — something you don't want to throw away by doing something stupid or corrupt."
One welcome change: The officers in Uruapan finally have uniforms. Previously, "you got a pair of black jeans, a black T-shirt, and you were a policeman," Officer Guillermo Cortés says.
The city's 500 officers also now carry assault rifles, bulletproof vests and even handheld computers linked to the Internet. They must pass regular drug tests. Medina has started requiring officers to earn their high-school equivalency degrees or lose their jobs.
A USA TODAY reporter recently spent several days riding along with Uruapan's police. As they chased down suspicious vehicles and hunted for local drug labs, officers said they had seen some progress but still voiced frustrations at their low salaries and bad public reputation.
Rafael Trujillo, a patrolman, says he made twice as much money working illegally as a busboy in California than he does as a police officer. "I might go back to the other side," he says glumly, referring to the United States. "It's too little pay, and it's very dangerous work."
Octavio Rodriguez, an expert on Mexican crime at the University of California-San Diego, says local police forces are critical because, at least in theory, they should know their own cities better than federal forces do. Of the $400 million in anti-drug aid that the U.S. government is sending Mexico this year, about $4.5 million is earmarked for improving local police.
More is needed, Rodriguez says. "You have to fight the cartels from the ground up," he says. "They cannot win this war without the local police. It's impossible."
City looks like a crime scene
The radio in the police patrol truck crackles: "Caller reports a blue Chevrolet Suburban, '30-meters' with long weapons," says the dispatcher, using the code word for armed men. Driver Gabriel Raya hits the gas. The siren screams.
This is how the bloodshed often begins, team commander Gabriel Espinosa says. Typically, a convoy of traffickers rolls into Uruapan to protect a drug shipment or kill a rival, he says. Transit police try to stop them, and a firefight breaks out.
In the back seat, patrolwoman Gabriela Aguilar chambers a round in her AR-15 assault rifle and pokes the muzzle out the window. There are three Gabriels (counting Gabriela) and a Rafael in Espinosa's team. Espinosa calls them "The Archangels."
Espinosa's truck careens at high speed through a city that, at times, resembles one big crime scene.
There's a gazebo where dismembered bodies were dumped in March and June. A house where rival drug gangs fought in May still has blown-out windows. Signs featuring the face of Maribel Martínez, a city official kidnapped by suspected traffickers last year, flap from telephone poles.
The violence in Uruapan has gotten worse as cartels lash out at the government crackdown, which has succeeded in reducing cocaine supply to some U.S. cities, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The drug gangs terrorize police, soldiers and civilians with AK-47 rifles — known in Mexico as cuernos de chivo, or goat's horns, for their curved magazines.
"Before, (gangs) killed one person at a time," says Eliezer Rentería, another of the six officers on Espinosa's team. "Now it's four, five. People getting 100 bullets from a cuerno de chivo. Massacres. It's crazy."
The truck abruptly slams to a stop. A black Chevrolet Suburban with tinted windows sits at the end of the street. More police trucks roar up, and the officers rush the vehicle with their AR-15s at the ready. It's empty.
"Keep looking," Espinosa says. The trucks search for two hours but cannot find the blue Suburban.
Federal police monitor the municipal radio frequency, Espinosa says with exasperation. None showed up to help.
Police have bad reputations
Relying too much on the federal police has long been a problem for local forces.
Genaro García Luna, Mexico's Public Safety secretary, says city and state police represent 93% of Mexico's 338,000 law enforcement officers. Yet, in his 2006 book Why Aren't 1,661 Police Forces Enough?, he wrote that local forces often are poorly trained, corrupt, underequipped and made lazy by "a social expectation that federal authorities should be the ones to solve every type of crime."
"It's a vicious cycle of, 'These police aren't good for anything, so why should we put any money into them?' " says Allison Rowland, a former professor at Mexico's Center for Economic Research and Education.
Part of President Calderón's new strategy is dispatching federal police commanders to take over municipal forces in smuggling hot spots. Chief Medina and his assistant chief, Anaya, are on loan from the federal highway patrol.
One of Medina's first acts was to fortify the police station, which last came under attack in March. The building is still commonly known among locals as la borracha — "the drunk tank," in Spanish slang — because, until recently, that was its primary use.
To try to attract recruits, Medina also is using federal funds to pay cadets a $300-a-month stipend during their six-month training course. Previously, cadets had to support themselves.
Medina also eliminated the typical Mexican police shift of 24 hours on, 24 hours off. Uruapan's police now work 12 hours on, 24 hours off.
"It was ridiculous," Medina said. "You had officers working 24 hours straight, then staying late to do paperwork. Those people were so exhausted they were worthless."
Meanwhile, Calderón's government is pushing through changes to give police greater legal powers. A constitutional amendment passed in March 2008 could allow local forces to finally set up their own detective branches. Another law passed in January requires municipal police to undergo background checks against a national database of criminal records and provides more federal funds for new equipment.
Forces lack cooperation
Responding to another call, Espinosa's crew takes up positions behind an army platoon clustered around a warehouse. Federal detectives are breaking open the lock.
Inside, the soldiers discover magazines full of AK-47 bullets scattered across a patio. In the rooms beyond are hundreds of sacks and 55-gallon drums containing chemicals used for making methamphetamines.
It's a major find — but the Mexican military claims credit. Lt. Col. Oswaldo Bejar boasts that his unit has made five busts in eight days in Uruapan, many of them using a chemical-sniffing device known as a GT-200.
Asked whether Mexican municipal police could use their local knowledge to take over this kind of work, Bejar laughs and shakes his head. Another soldier turns to Espinosa and asks him if he knows where a single drug trafficker lives in Uruapan.
"No," Espinosa says coolly. The soldier smiles and walks away.
Minutes later, Espinosa and his crew are back in their truck — but they're still fuming over the insult. "It's not like they know, either," Espinosa mutters.
A recent report by the RAND Corp., a U.S. think tank, said Mexico's drug fight has been crippled by turf wars between the country's various security forces. Often city police will find a murder victim, but state homicide detectives won't tell them the victim's identity, says Cortés, one of the Uruapan officers.
"Because of that, we don't know who's killing whom," he says. "They search a house in our jurisdiction, and we hear about it on the news."
State police say recent events give them good reason to distrust local forces. In April, troops arrested all of the police officers in four towns in the border state of Chihuahua. Troops confiscated 828 assault rifles from the police in Monterrey and surrounding suburbs in June.
Local police "have a bad image here," says Luis Léon Navarrete, a spokesman for the Michoacán state prosecutor's office. "It's not like in the United States."
'100%' of officers take bribes
Chief Medina says he has used federal funds to double the wages of patrol officers to about $615 a month. But many officers interviewed earn much less — which, in their minds, makes it OK to occasionally accept small bribes.
The practice of taking mordidas, or bites, from citizens — usually to allow them to get out of traffic tickets — continues unabated among the force's division of traffic policemen, officer Antonio Martínez says.
"All of us take mordidas— 100% of us," he says. "Maybe not all the time. Maybe one time in 10. It buys lunch for one day."
Medina insists he sees evidence of improvement, though. A few days after the bust at the meth warehouse, he listens to an account of Espinosa's contentious exchange with the army soldiers.
It was, in fact, city police who first learned about the warehouse after a June 16 shootout with traffickers, Medina says. They notified the federales.
"Now they finally came to take a look," Medina says. "They don't see us as full partners yet. But eventually they'll have to."
By Chris Hawley
September 16, 2009