Mexico fires corrupt police
Mexico City - Police in the Gulf port city of Veracruz were heavily infiltrated by criminal elements, mainly the deadly Zetas drug cartel, an armed forces official said on Thursday, leaving authorities no choice but to disband the force - Mexico's most dramatic step to date in battling corrupt cops.
It could take months to replace the 800 officers and 300 administrative employees who were dismissed on Wednesday, said the official, who could not be named for security reasons.
"It was a fairly high percentage of people infiltrated or in collusion," he said, though he did not mention specifics. He added that many were threatened into service of the drug cartels and had no choice.
About 800 marines, or navy infantry, will patrol the city of 700 000 in the meantime, the official said.
Veracruz state government officials, meanwhile, disputed that the firing had to do with corruption.
The dismissal was designed to meet a federal requirement to build new police forces certified under stricter standards, said Gina Dominguez, spokesperson for Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte.
None of the dismissed employees is under investigation for corruption and all can reapply for their jobs, she said.
All applicants will be required to undergo a rigorous new programme of testing and background checks.
"The police force was created under previous administrations and the governor wanted to renovate the force with new police certified at a national level that elicit the confidence of citizens," she said.
The change was agreed to on Monday by Duarte and federal Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire.
President Felipe Calderon, who leaves office in December 2012, has promised to leave a secure police force. To root out corruption, the federal government has been pushing an elaborate process for vetting all of Mexico's 460 000 police officers.
According to federal figures, only 16% have been vetted so far, and only 8% of the total passed the background checks and tests.
In Veracruz, a state even Calderon conceded had been handed over to the Zetas, 14% of state police had been evaluated as of the end of the September, and 6% of municipal police. The number who passed was not available.
Mexico's army has taken over police operations several times before, notably in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez and the northern border state of Tamaulipas, and federal and state governments have made countless unsuccessful attempts to clean up Mexico's notoriously corrupt police.
But Veracruz becomes the first state to completely disband a large police department and use marines as law enforcers.
Duarte already had disbanded a police force in the state's capital of Xalapa, but in that case state agents immediately replaced city police.
Veracruz is a common route for drugs and migrants coming from the south. It was first dominated by the Gulf Cartel, and then its former armed wing, the Zetas, took over after the two split. The state saw a rise in crime this year after a government offensive in neighbouring Tamaulipas scared drug criminals into Veracruz.
The port since has turned into a battleground between the Zetas and a gang aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The war has been marked by the dumping of 35 bodies on a main highway in rush-hour traffic in September.
Less than a month later, authorities announced the firing of nearly 1 000 state police officers for failing their tests.