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Massive Firing of Police in Mexico May Turn Some Into New Criminals

After decades of police corruption that left average Mexicans fearful of the police and cynical about the country's system of justice, an all-out war on Mexico's bad cops has finally been declared.

Prompting the action is not so much the mordidas, or bribes, and other forms of everyday corruption Mexicans face from the police, but a mounting concern that the police were fast becoming the Mexican drug cartels' No. 1 ally.

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Last Friday Mexico's top cop, Attorney General Antonio Lozano Gracia, announced the firing of 737 federal judicial police, more than 1 in 6 of the powerful and much-feared Judiciales who are responsible for crime investigations. The mass firing came because the officers no longer "fulfilled the ethical profile" required of the police, Mr. Lozano says, and because the move was necessary to reach President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon's goal of a clean and effective justice system.

Among the accusations leveled against the dismissed officers are illicit enrichment, possession of high-powered arms reserved for the Mexican Army, corruption, and drug trafficking. Yet while Lozano has tried to steer attention on the action toward what he insists is a general cleanup and professionalization of the police, other observers, even within the attorney general's offices, say alarm over strengthening connections between police and drug traffickers was the catalyst.

A rash of killings

That concern has grown in the wake of recent accusations by a number of former police officials that high-ranking law-enforcement officials, including in some cases top cops in Mexican states, were receiving millions of dollars from drug barons in return for safe passage for their lucrative shipments. A rash of killings of high-level investigative cops over the past year - often under circumstances that pointed to other officers as the trigger men - also made decisive action urgent.

Sources within the attorney general's offices say concern over the drug connections was so strong that officials believed control of some police units, especially in major northern cities and along the United States-Mexico border, was being lost. Although one spokesman denied it, other officials claim either a cleanup was necessary or the military was likely to be tapped - a move civilian authorities wish to avoid despite the high respect Mexico's armed forces command.

The military has increasingly been called on recently to help Mexico confront the crime spree and significant erosion of public safety that have accompanied a deep economic recession. In June, President Zedillo replaced Mexico City's top law-enforcement official with Army Gen. Enrique Salgado Cordero, who estimates that 50 percent of the city's crime originated in police ranks.

In a press conference Wednesday, Lozano, the attorney general, acknowledged that recent police deaths, particularly numerous in Baja California state, were leading to confusion and "doubts" among the public about the police - doubts over whether they were being killed because of the good work they were doing or as a result of a "settling of accounts" among drug traffickers.

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The 737 firings bring to more than 1,200 the number of federal police officers Lozano has let go this year. But despite the apparent immediate public support for the measure, this month's mass firing also led to a number of criticisms. The action was a political move designed primarily to deflect attention from failings in Lozano's stewardship, some critics claim, especially over the lack of progress in investigations of several high-profile political assassinations. Others say letting go such a high number of police will affect the morale and effectiveness of the remaining officers.

Fired cops, new criminals?

But perhaps the biggest concern is that the firings will simply create a formidable new criminal element that will put its law-enforcement knowledge to further illicit but profitable use. "We are speaking here of the creation of a dangerous army of unemployed [officers] ... with training in the use of arms and knowledge of the most profitable practices of delinquency," says Sergio Sarmiento, a noted Mexico City analyst.

"In terms of public safety, I'm not sure the remedy is better than the illness," adds Alberto Arnaut, a political scientist at Colegio de Mexico here. Not only will the fired police be "more dangerous to the public" outside police circles, he says, but the sudden and sizable firing also will lower the effectiveness of the police corps, which in general will be newer, younger, and less experienced.

"It's neither easy nor rapid - the building of an effective police force," he says. Officials in the attorney general's office counter that the more than 800 new or anticipated judicial police will have had at least nine months' training.

For the public, the importance of the dismissals will come down to whether they deliver a police the people can trust.

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