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Police turn blind eye to Monterrey drug cartels

When gang members opened fire on the Café Iguana in downtown Monterrey last Sunday night, a squad of eight policemen rushed to the scene.

The police arrived to find four people dead and five wounded. Just as they began surveying the scene another group of gang members pulled up in a truck and began loading the dead bodies in the back. Rather than confront them, the officers watched as the men stashed three bodies in the truck and briefly searched for the fourth, which had fallen behind some parked cars. They eventually left it behind and sped off.

The officers involved are now under investigation, but only one has been arrested. The others have vanished.

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This isn't the first time Monterrey police have been accused of co-operating with drug cartels. Police corruption is so rampant in this city of four million that government officials believe at least half of the force is on the payroll of the gangs. Low pay, scant resources and an inability to cope with the heavily armed gangs have made the police an easy target for recruitment.

"Our police do not have anything to lose," said Jorge Domene Zambrano, executive director of the Office of Public Security for the state of Nuevo Leon, which includes Monterrey. "That's why they are very easy to be kept by the bad guys."

But rather than trying to clean up the police department, the government is trying a more radical approach. It is scrapping all 51 municipal police forces across the state, including 11 in the Monterrey area.

In their place, the government plans to create a new state service called Fuerza Civil. It will have 14,000 officers, roughly double the current number of local police. To help ward off corruption, these officers will receive twice the current salary and get benefits such as private health care, scholarships for their children and the ability to live in guarded neighbourhoods. They'll also be better armed and better organized to take on the cartels.

The program, announced this week, is the most ambitious antigang effort undertaken by any state in Mexico and it will cost roughly $1-billion over five years.

"We acknowledge that there is a challenge, that we are going to face the challenge and that we're not going to deliberately concede the city to the criminal organizations," said Javier Trevino Cantu the state's secretary general. He added that the government is also revamping laws to make it easier to go after gangs and targeting poor neighbourhoods with social programs to help fend off recruitment by cartels.

"We have had many years of neglect," he said. "People were not paying attention because there was no problem. Now we have to face it."

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Until recently, Monterrey had been spared much of the gang violence that has ravaged other parts of Mexico. That allowed the city to continue its remarkable growth, driven by its proximity to the U.S. border, just two hours away, and its status as the country's main manufacturing centre.

The city is home to some of Mexico's largest companies, including cement giant Cemex, as well as 2,600 factories belonging to foreign businesses such as Whirlpool, Navistar and Philips. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and dozens of auto-parts companies also have plants about an hour south in the nearby city of Saltillo.

The North American Free Trade Agreement brought untold prosperity to Monterrey and income levels are now among the highest in Mexico. There are sprawling shopping malls, gleaming concert halls, a multitude of museums and the Monterrey Institute of Technology, one of the best universities in the country.

Monterrey had been considered so prosperous and so safe it was considered a potential home for baseball's Montreal Expos in 2004 before the team moved to Washington. Even the cartel leaders used to send their families to live in Monterrey's upscale San Pedro district, considered the richest suburb in Mexico.

All that calm and security was shattered about two years ago when the Gulf drug cartel and its military-like offshoot, the Zetas, began vying for territory. Just why that turf war spread into Monterrey isn't clear.

Some blame Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on the cartels, which he launched in 2006. They say that fragmented the gangs and drove them into untouched areas such as Monterrey, where they now battle for control. Others point to the U.S. government's crackdown on the Mexican border, saying that pushed more drugs and gang violence into Mexico and drove up the number of domestic drug users. Still others blame the Zetas, once the hired guns for the Gulf cartel, who have struck out on their own and are now trying to develop their own drug trade.

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Whatever the reason, Monterrey is feeling the effect. Murders have skyrocketed and the Zetas frequently roam the streets in caravans with near impunity, battling their Gulf rivals as well as the army. Monterrey had 828 murders in 2010, a threefold increase from 2009. So far this year, there have been 611 deaths. Many of the killings bear the gruesome hallmarks of other Mexican cities, with headless bodies dumped in city squares or hung from bridges.

It's not just shootings. Carjackings have become common along with "express kidnappings" where people are held just long enough to cough up a few thousand dollars. The Zetas have also been blamed for hijacking trucks and tossing grenades into police stations as a warning to back off.

"It's very easy to explain," Mr. Domene Zambrano said. "Our President declared war against these guys. So that's why you are seeing the army, the navy and federal police in the streets. The states were not ready for that." He estimates that there are 4,000 Zetas and Gulf cartel members in the city but he is convinced the government's actions are working.

The real fear among government officials is that the violence will start to affect the local economy. Foreign companies are still investing in the city and jobs are plentiful. But many companies have put expansion decisions on hold and some foreign executives have left for the safety of their home countries.

Many residents, such as retired teacher Rosaura Barahona, aren't convinced the government's new program will work. Like many others in the city, Ms. Barahona has been a target of extortion attempts and she worries about her safety almost every time she leaves the house.

"I'm very pessimistic," she said. The corruption "will happen all over again."

Ms. Barahona pointed to past attempts by the government to clean up the prisons, with new guards, better pay and improved facilities. Then, last week, 14 prisoners at a jail in Monterrey were killed by guards and then burned. The warden and several officers are under investigation. This week, one guard under investigation was shot to death while driving his car.

The Café Iguana has become something of a symbol for the public anger at the drug wars. The sidewalk in front of the club is lined with candles and flowers while the front wall is plastered with handwritten messages pleading for an end to the violence.

"No more blood, please," says one. "More Peace, No More Guns," reads another.

Next door, at La Pizza Guana, a man named Eduardo shakes his head and shrugs when asked about the shooting. "It's the mafia," he says. He usually works Sunday nights but happened to be away when the gunfire occurred.

When asked whether he is afraid, Eduardo replied: "No. Because I am with God."

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