Erika Gandara stood alone, and now she stands no more.
The 28-year-old started as a police dispatcher in Mexico's drug-plagued north. In November, barely a year later, she found herself running the show in Guadalupe, population 9,000, near the drug-war ground zero of Ciudad Juarez. She was the only law officer remaining in the border municipality after the 12 other cops she worked with were either killed or quit in the face of rising drug violence. But, she hasn't been seen in almost a week, after a dozen gunmen burned her house down and torched two cars outside, according to reports.
Ms. Gandara was among the small but growing number of women enforcing law and order in the state of Chihuahua, where the death toll this year has topped 3,100 as rival cartels fight over a lucrative territory for smuggling drugs into the United States and importing guns into Mexico. Worn down by attacks and desertions, some police forces were left to be headed by citizens - including women - with little backgrounds in law enforcement.
Single without children, she acknowledged the job scared her. But she still patrolled the collection of ranch settlements with a pistol in her hand, and an assault rifle over her shoulder, until her disappearance last Friday. "Lots of people here believe the police are corrupt and on the take," she told reporters in November. "I do not believe in that because, I think where the money is easy, death is going to get you in a hurry."
Down the road in another town, university student and young mother, Marisol Valles, 20, made headlines a few months ago when she was named that town's police chief. Elsewhere in the state, the police chief's job went to Hermila Garcia, 38, who had never worked in policing. She was assassinated outside of her home after 50 days on the job. On some of the communal farms known as ejidos outside Ciudad Juarez, two housewives took over the police forces in November. "We don't have weapons. We have a patrol car that barely runs, but we have a lot of will to work and make things right," the president of one of the ejidos told the Reforma newspaper.
The decimation of police forces, says Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, ombudsman for the Chihuahua state human rights commission in Ciudad Juarez, "has to do with the fear of being a cop," in a state where more than 100 officers have been slain so far this year and an even bigger number are suspected to have been kidnapped.
"They earn little money," Mr. de la Rosa said, estimating the average municipal officer made less than $400 per month. "They work with small weapons and constantly under the threat of death."
Such poverty in local policing is common in Mexico. The lack of resources and an absence of professionalism have made the country's approximately 2,000 municipal forces weak links in the ongoing crackdown on organized crime, which has claimed more than 30,000 over the past four years.
Municipal forces have reputations for incompetence - the average cop has 8.8 years of education - and, increasingly, corruption and cartel complicity says Pedro Isnardo de la Cruz, security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
"Municipal forces are turning into arms of the cartels" that organized crime "uses as sources of information," he said.
U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks report Mexican Defence Secretary General Guillermo Galvan complaining that local and state police forces regularly passed along information to the cartels.
President Felipe Calderon has proposed creating 32 state police forces with single commanders, which would replace municipal forces and theoretically reduce leaks and corruption. But Mr. de la Cruz expresses doubts such a model would work as it would invest more powers in state governors, who increasingly have presided over non-transparent jurisdictions with little transparency and oversight from autonomous institutions such as the courts. The results, he says, could prove disastrous as organized crime potentially corrupts bigger and better-armed institutions.
"We're just going to have more attempts on public officials," he said.
In Chihuahua, Mr. de la Rosa also expresses doubts about the new regime, but sees the status quo of zones without law enforcement as unacceptable.
"It's the only solution for Guadalupe," he said.
Special to The Globe and Mail