The police are considered corrupt by 80 percent of the population, according to opinion polls, while the armed forces are the most highly respected institution in Mexico, along with the Catholic Church.
But human rights activists and opposition politicians argue that the armed forces are not trained to perform civilian tasks and are thus more prone to committing human rights violations. In fact, complaints of abuses have multiplied in recent weeks.
In one incident early this month, soldiers at a military checkpoint opened fire on a pickup truck in a rural area of the northern state of Sinaloa, killing two women and three children under the age of seven. Three army officers and 16 troops have been arrested in connection with the incident, and according to the authorities, will feel the full weight of the law.
Surveys show that Calderon has broad popular support for his decision to further militarize the "war" against the drug cartels, which has already cost 1,100 lives so far this year, mainly people linked to the drug trade, but also police officers, soldiers and reporters.
Analysts and even some leftwing opposition legislators also believe the government had no choice but to give the armed forces a greater role in the war on drugs, given the growing power of the drug cartels.
Drug-related deaths totalled 9,000 between 2000 and 2006, under the administration of President Vicente Fox, who like Calderon belongs to the National Action Party (PAN).
"I think it's good that the soldiers have been called in to provide support," says Agustin, another "beat" patrol officer who works with Alejandro in a middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City.
"The violence of the Ônarcos' has gotten so bad, and besides, there are members of municipal police forces who are less trained than us and are working in places where the drug mafias are really strong," he remarks to IPS.
"In our one-month course, we received physical conditioning, training in laws, ethics, human rights, personal defense and weapons. Maybe that's very little training, which is why we fall into corruption, don't you think?" says the police officer, who adds that he is "happy" that he doesn't have to work in a dangerous area or one that is under the control of drug traffickers.
Neither Agustin nor Alejandro wants to give IPS their last names. "It's a safety issue; you know our bosses could mess with us for talking," says one of the two officers, who patrol the streets on foot in a light blue and black uniform and dark hat, armed with a pistol and a small machine gun.
They say that when they joined the police, they committed themselves to visiting a military barracks once a month to receive four hours of physical training and classes in ethics and human rights.
Mexico's 350,000 police officers belong to 1,661 different municipal, state and federal forces, nearly 90 percent of which are governed by state or municipal authorities. Just 37,500 police in Mexico have the status of investigator or detective.
Thousands of lower-ranking local police officers earn less than $250 a month and have not completed primary school.
There are also 15,250 Federal Preventive Police, 10,000 of whom are members of the army and navy, and 5,000 members of the Federal Investigations Agency.
Applicants wishing to join the federal police forces must have graduated from secondary school. They undergo training courses that last a minimum of three months, and can earn $1,000 a month or more.
Calderon has deployed around the country thousands of the 300,000 members of the armed forces, invoking the constitution, which makes that possible in case of serious threats to internal security, and a 1996 Supreme Court decision that set a legal precedent for military back-up of the police.
The military's participation in the fight against drug trafficking dates back to the mid-1990s, when then president Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) called the army out. However, Calderon has assigned to the war on drugs the largest number of soldiers ever, and has put the military in control of most of the strategic command positions.
Investigations by the attorney-general's office show that the drug mafias have infiltrated the police and have seized control of different areas of the country, especially along the border with the United States, the destination for most of the drugs trafficked through Mexico.
Soldiers, who earn around $400 a month on average, have also been tempted by the drug money. Although there are no official figures on how many troops have been drawn into the drug trade, just over 107,000 soldiers deserted between December 2000 and November 2006.
The attorney-general's office reports that the drug traffickers' "private armies" are partly made up of former members of the police and the military, who earn up to $100,000 a month.
And there are places in the country where police officers of the same rank as Alejandro and Agustin receive between $300-500 a day from the drug cartels in exchange for protection and support, the attorney-general's office adds.
Mexican drug traffickers, working in coordination with cartels from Colombia and other drug-producing countries, smuggle a large part of the drugs consumed in the United States, the world's biggest market for illegal drugs.
Observers attribute the exponential increase in violence in recent years to a war between the drug trafficking organizations over control of access routes to the United States and over local markets in Mexico, where demand is growing.
"Drug traffickers offer a lot of money, we know that, and that's why we are given courses on ethics," says Agustin.
"But to be frank: I don't think most of the police apply what they learn there," he comments, adding that his monthly salary of $460 is "very low."
"You can't live well on what I earn, but what can we do?"
When he is told that in some parts of the United States, police officers earn more than $3,000 a month, and that they take rigorous courses of at least two years, Agustin says he is envious. "That's why they're respected there, while here in Mexico people just give us dirty looks."
Although several initiatives have been implemented to professionalise and purge the police, and to improve coordination between the various forces, the stigma of corruption continues to hang over them.
In the meantime, the attorney-general's office reports that among the most dangerous groups faced by the police, and to a growing extent by the armed forces as well, are Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel's private army.
The group is made up of former elite special forces who use military-style tactics, equipment and weaponry and earn thousands of dollars a month from their new bosses.
"I believe that for now, only the military can combat the Ônarcos,' but we would also do so if we were paid more, if we were better-trained and had more and better weapons," says Alejandro.
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Albion Monitor June
8, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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