- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2008

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) — It’s a warning note written in blood as Mexico’s powerful drug cartels increase the pressure on police and security officials who vow to break their power.

The campaign of murder and intimidation appears to have reached a new peak in recent months, with at least four high-ranking police officials among the drug lords’ victims, including the country’s acting federal police chief.

Over the weekend, the Mexican police chief here quit his post across the border from El Paso, Texas, after receiving death threats from drug gangs that are resisting a crackdown on smugglers, officials said.

Ciudad Juarez’s top policeman Guillermo Prieto resigned just days after suspected cartel hit men killed the city’s No. 2 police officer.

And four people thought to be Americans were shot in the head and dumped in a notorious drug-smuggling area in northern Mexico near the border with California, Mexican police said yesterday.

Police in the beach town of Rosarito, across the border from San Diego, said they discovered the bodies of three men and a woman Sunday in an abandoned car in a remote patch of scrubland near the Pacific coast.

Mexican police who take on the cartels feel isolated and vulnerable when they become targets, as did 22 commanders in Ciudad Juarez when drug traffickers named them on a handwritten death list left at a monument to fallen police this year. It was addressed to “those who still don’t believe” in the power of the cartels.

Of the 22, seven have been killed and three wounded in assassination attempts. Of the others, all but one have quit, and city officials said he didn’t want to be interviewed.

“These are attacks directed at the top commanders of the city police, and it is not just happening in Ciudad Juarez,” Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz said at the funeral of the latest victim, police director Juan Antonio Roman Garcia. “It is happening in Nuevo Laredo, in Tijuana, in this entire region.

“They are attacking top commanders to destabilize the police force.”

The killings are in response to a crackdown staged by President Felipe Calderon, who has sent thousands of soldiers and federal police across the nation to confront the cartels. Drug lords have hit back by sending killers to attack police with hand grenades and assault rifles.

Police are increasingly giving up. Last week, U.S. officials revealed that three Mexican police commanders have crossed into the United States to request asylum, saying they are unprotected and fear for their lives.

“It’s almost like a military fight,” said Jayson P. Ahern, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “I don’t think that generally the American public has any sense of the level of violence that occurs on the border.”

On May 8, Edgar Millan Gomez, who had taken over as acting federal police chief just 10 weeks previously, was shot by a lone gunman outside his Mexico City apartment. Police blamed the Sinaloa cartel and said a police officer was among the suspects arrested.

The U.S. Embassy in the capital flew its flag at half-staff. “Mexico has lost another hero,” Ambassador Antonio O. Garza Jr. said in a statement. “Mexico has lost too many heroes in the fight against criminals and drug cartels.”

Mexican government institutions didn’t lower their flags, but held elaborate funerals.

In Ciudad Juarez, police have been given assault rifles — they used to just carry pistols — and are instructed not to patrol streets alone. More than 100 of the city’s 1,700-member force have resigned or retired since January.

Soldiers also are in the cartels’ sights. The Zetas, an infamous group of soldiers-turned-drug hit men, strung banners above highways with slogans such as “The Zetas want you — we offer good salaries to soldiers,” and taunts about low army pay.

The conflict has become a battle for the loyalty of police and civilians.

“Juarez Needs You! Join up and become part of the city police,” read enormous city billboards. The jobs offer salaries about three times higher than those offered by the foreign-owned “maquiladora” factories, which are the city’s biggest industrial employer.

But police and soldiers keep deserting to the cartels, giving traffickers inside knowledge about tactics and surveillance.

And because of their history of corruption and abuse, police and soldiers run into suspicion as they patrol the border slums where traffickers throw children’s parties, hand out cell phones and employ taxi drivers and youths as lookouts.

A Mexican army captain leading about a dozen soldiers raiding a Ciudad Juarez slum gazed over a maze of alleys, shacks and, in the distance, El Paso, Texas, gleaming in the sun. He said the drug lords’ spies are everywhere, tipping off their bosses to approaching troops.

Many residents complain of heavy-handed army tactics.

“These guys don’t care about anything,” said Lalo Lucero, 44, a former migrant worker in New Mexico, as he watched soldiers detain a neighborhood youth. “They came into my house without a warrant, searched through everything and told me to sit on a couch and not say anything.”

The army’s public relations office did not reply to requests for comment. But authorities have tried to improve the troops’ image by blanketing Ciudad Juarez with pictures of a soldier manning a machine gun and the slogan “We Are Here to Help You.”

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