- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO (AP) - Thousands of Mexican soldiers took a tighter grip on policing in the violence-scarred border city of Ciudad Juarez on Tuesday and the retired general in charge of police emphasized the military dominance by announcing city officers will be stripped of their weapons while on patrol.

New Public Safety Secretary Julian Rivera Breton announced that the troubled police force in the city of 1.3 million would be unarmed, serving largely to help soldiers answer calls for help and pursue suspects.

Rivera Breton was sworn in on Monday to replace a police chief _ also a former military officer _ who resigned in the face of criminal threats to murder a policeman every 48 hours until he stepped down.

The shakeup even reached the level of traffic control: The city announced that 350 soldiers will direct traffic and enforce rules of the road.

Ordering police to patrol without guns may head off conflicts between the agencies, averting the occasionally armed clashes, accidental and otherwise, that have marred cooperation in other regions. Police were also ordered to undergo retraining.

Praise for the army-led clampdown came from U.S. Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., who heads the Northern Command. Renuart says the Mexican army “have been very effective” and there is a “return to some sense of normalcy in Juarez.”

Renuart told a Senate hearing that he felt that Mexican authorities “are building momentum” in the fight against drug cartels, whose bloody turf battles claimed over 6,000 lives in 2008, including 1,600 in Ciudad Juarez. “I would not say they are losing.”

About 700 of the dead nationwide were Mexican military and police personnel _ a heavy blow to departments that have struggled for decades against efforts by well-financed, heavily armed drug gangs to buy off officers and to bully or murder those who can’t be bought.

More than half of the 1,700 police officers in Ciudad Juarez quit, retired or were fired last year alone, leaving the city scrambling for officers.

Renuart also said the U.S. military is helping its Mexican counterpart, “working with them in a direct relationship to build more of the capacity to allow them to sustain that effort in some of these cities.”

That was an apparent reference to U.S. technological and transport aid under the Merida Initiative.

Elsewhere in Mexico, the director of a state prison was shot to death Tuesday in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero. State police said Cesar Alberto de Leon was shot to death at a local sports facility.

And in the western state of Jalisco, prosecutors said that five men detained in connection with a grenade attack against local police last week belonged to band of hit men who are suspected in the previous killings of 13 people.

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