Tijuana—Mexican federal agents and army troops fanned out across this besieged border city Tuesday to replace 500 police officers, the latest move by the government to purge the troubled force of corrupt and incompetent cops.
Last week, 21 officers, including two deputy chiefs, were detained on suspicion of having ties to drug traffickers and flown to Mexico City for questioning by Mexico’s anti-organized-crime unit.
The 500 officers who were replaced will be sent to a police academy for training and background checks and could return in a few months, authorities said.
Their removal appears to be aimed at weakening Teodoro Garcia Simental, known as El Teo, a suspected crime boss who is believed to control the police in the city’s east.
Federal agents and troops, supported by Baja California state police, will patrol four neighborhoods considered Garcia’s strongholds, including La Mesa and Cerro Colorado.
Prosecutors also said Tuesday that a top police official who was Mexico’s main liaison with Interpol was under house arrest as part of an investigation into leaks to drug cartels.
Among the 21 officers detained in Tijuana last week was a veteran policeman well known in U.S. law enforcement circles. Javier Cardenas, the Mexican liaison to U.S. federal and local agencies, was highly regarded for capturing fugitives and suspects here and turning them over to U.S. authorities.
He was taken into custody by a convoy of soldiers that descended on the downtown police headquarters.
Interpol is sending a special investigative team to Mexico to determine whether sensitive information from its database on criminals and terrorists was leaked to drug cartels, the agency said Wednesday.
Interpol launched the probe after Mexican federal police official Ricardo Gutierrez Vargas was placed under house arrest as part of an investigation of law enforcement officers who allegedly shared police information with traffickers.
The arrest of Gutierrez Vargas—who served as director for International Police Affairs and Interpol at the Federal Investigative Agency—was the latest blow to Mexico’s police forces, which have seen a number of top officials linked to the nation’s powerful and violent drug gangs.
The investigation that netted Gutierrez Vargas also resulted in the detention of several other federal police officials in recent weeks on suspicion of leaking information to traffickers.
Interpol said each officer “is connected to INTERPOL’s secure police communications network I-24/7, which enables them to share crucial information on criminals and criminal activities 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Former federal police commissioner Gerardo Garay and three other officials of the Public Safety Department were placed under house arrest earlier, though officials have not revealed the allegations against them.
Also Tuesday, federal agents took over patrolling in four of Tijuana’s boroughs.
Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos said the federal agents replaced dozens of city officers taken off their posts so they could receive more training.