In the midst of a violent drug war, President Felipe Calderon fired crooked cops by the hundreds, and hired new ones—rigorously vetted and college educated—by the thousands. Salaries were doubled, new standards imposed and officers were subjected to extensive background checks.
A trustworthy federal police force was to be one of the most important legacies of Calderon’s six-year term. And yet, just months before he is to leave office in December, the president found himself apologizing “profoundly” this week for an incident in which federal police allegedly opened fire on an SUV with diplomatic plates, injuring two Americans.
A dozen federal police officers are being detained while the Mexican attorney general’s office investigates the incident. Many of the details remain unclear, including what may have motivated officers to open fire on the vehicle, which was traveling through dangerous countryside south of Mexico City.
The CIA has declined to comment on reports in U.S. and Mexican media that the Americans were CIA agents. They were heading to a Mexican military installation where they were serving as trainers.
But since the incident, which occurred just two months after a shootout involving crooked federal officers that left three dead at the Mexico City airport, the denunciations of the police have been withering. For many here, whether the attackers turned out to be corrupt or just bumbling, Calderon’s new and improved federal police force is just more of the same.
In Chapultepec Park, a 19-year-old peanut vendor laughed when asked whether the force had changed for the better.
He laughed again when asked to give his name, as though anyone would be foolish enough to do so when the police were so crooked.
“Here, everything runs on money,” he said. “The drug cartels have enough money to give to the federal police, and everybody else, to control everything they do.”
Mexicans have long been wary of police at all levels. Officers are notorious not only for soliciting the little bribes known as mordidas, but for shaking down innocents, running kidnapping rings, and serving as security forces and death squads for the drug gangs. One 2010 poll found that only 8% of respondents felt strong confidence in the police.