As Federal Forces Withdraw, Juarez Police Must Hold their Own

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Thousands of Federal Police who have overseen security in Mexico‘s most violent city for the past year are set to withdraw in the coming months — but whether Ciudad Juarez’s local police are up to the job remains to be seen.

In September, Mexico’s Federal Police (Policia Federal – PF) will begin a phased withdrawal from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. As Milenio reported, around 5,500 federal police officers have been stationed there since April 2010, when the government announced that the PF would take over law enforcement functions from the army in the troubled city. Since then, the military has taken a lower-key role in security, continuing to conduct patrols but leaving law enforcement to the federal police force.

The country’s Public Security Ministry (Secretaria de Seguridad Publica – SSP) has stated that the plan does not amount to a complete withdrawal, as some PF special units will stay at their posts, and the Juarez Federal Police Command Center will remain open. In total, 1,500 federal police officers will stay on when the roll-back is completed in March 2012.

The announcement will likely be welcomed by local authorities, who have had a strained relationship with Federal Police in recent months. In January, one of Mayor Hector Murguia’s bodyguards was shot and killed by two federal agents, in what they claimed was a case of mistaken identity. In May, the mayor clashed with Federal Police yet again after they followed his vehicle. Although the confrontation lasted only a matter of minutes, the heated exchange ended with police pointing their weapons at Murgia’s entourage.

The latest incident of friction between federal and local officials occurred on June 25, when federal police fired on Juarez police chief Julian Leyzaola as he arrived at the scene of a deadly prison riot. In response to accusations of wrongdoing, the officers claimed they were merely doing their duty, as Leyzaola had driven through a checkpoint without stopping or identifying himself.

In a recent interview with the El Paso Times, Leyzaola himself admitted that there is very little cooperation between his department and federal officials. “With the Federal Police, there is no coordination,” Leyzaola said. “They have their work programs and we are starting our own, but there is no coordination.”

He also expressed doubt about the federal forces’ effectiveness in the struggle against drug cartels in the city, saying “Their current responsibilities are actually my responsibilities, not theirs. And it’s not an aggression. They gradually have to reduce their number of officers in the city. Whether they want to do it in collaboration with us or they want to do it alone, it’s their decision.”

But many in the city do not share this view; as CNN Mexico reports, civil society groups in Juarez are split on the matter. While the Federal Police have been accused of human rights abuses such as arbitrary detention and using torture to obtain forced confessions, many are concerned that the municipal police lack the level of professionalism necessary to fill the gap. Since taking office in March, Leyzaola has fired some 160 officers from the force on grounds of corruption, and last month the police chief estimated that at least 400 more will be dismissed this year.

Ultimately, there is room for cautious optimism in assessing the future of security in Juarez. As InSight Crime has reported, the city’s murder rate has fallen slightly this year, indicating that law enforcement efforts have succeeded in tamping down on drug-related violence. While President Felipe Calderon claimed in May that this was mostly the work of the Federal Police, he offered little in terms of evidence to support this. With the withdrawal of the federal forces, both his administration and the Mexican public will be keeping an anxious watch on the rate of violence in the border city.

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