To Root Out Dirty Police, Mexico Sends In a General
By DAVID LUHNOW
TORREON, Mexico—His grandfather was the cross-eyed cousin of Mexico's legendary revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa. Like his famous ancestor, Carlos Villa is a hard-charging general who is charismatic, foulmouthed and not afraid to use his gun.
And some say he is just what Mexico needs as it wrestles with the corruption and violence spawned by the country's powerful gangs of drug traffickers.
Retired Gen. Villa is the 61-year-old police chief in Torreon, an industrial city in Mexico's violent northern badlands—a central drug-running route currently being fought over by two of Mexico's biggest cartels.
Since taking over as the city's top police officer in January, Mr. Villa has battled not only the city's drug lords, but also his own police force, which was on the payroll of a powerful cartel.
In March, nearly the entire force walked off the job to demand the general's ouster. The mayor faced a choice: Fire nearly every officer and leave the city at the mercy of drug gangs, or dump the general and keep corrupt police on the street. He fired the officers.
"It was the best decision I ever made," says Mayor Eduardo Olmos. "It's not that our cops weren't fighting the bad guys—they were the bad guys."
Crime nearly tripled in Torreon during a summer that saw some of Mexico's bloodiest drug-related crimes, including the massacre by gunmen of 17 civilians at a party in August. But the mayor and his soldier-turned-police chief are building a new force and seeing some success against crime.
"He's the best police chief we've had," says Father Jose Rodriguez, a 73-year-old Torreon priest. "The Bible says you shall know them by their works, and I know the general from his works."
Mr. Villa's effort to remake the Torreon force holds implications for how Mexico tries to quell the drug-related violence that has claimed more than 31,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon took power in December 2006.
Until now, Mr. Calderon's strategy has focused on using federal forces to fight the cartels, including the army and a new federal police. But the strategy has been missing a key piece: local police. There are only about 30,000 federal police and about 45,000 troops deployed on cartels. There are some 240,000 municipal police—but they are widely deemed corrupt and unreliable.
"Local cops are the tip of the spear," says a top DEA agent posted in Mexico. "In the U.S., we'd struggle to do anything without our partners in local law enforcement."
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