MEXICO CITY – When pressed about why Mexico is struggling in its battle with illegal-drug cartels, Genaro García Luna, the nation's top police official, likes to put his inquisitors on the spot with a question: Would you encourage your child to become a Mexican cop?
The answer, he says, is often no.
The reputation of Mexican police is so poor that even García Luna, a stocky, frenetic man with close-cropped hair, would have given the same answer not long ago. As a young domestic intelligence officer at Mexico's spy agency in the 1990s, he says, he would have been "offended" if anyone referred to him as a cop.
Now, it is his job to change all that. Mexican President Felipe Calderón tapped the 41-year-old to rebuild Mexico's police from scratch amid a drug war that's claimed at least 13,000 lives since Calderón took power nearly three years ago. The centerpiece of García Luna's plan: persuading college-educated sons and daughters of the middle class to become part of a new, professional police corps.
"We've had a corrupt, uneducated police force, without a budget, driving stolen vehicles and basically decomposing for 40 years," says García Luna, an engineer by training who was known in his younger days for tailing suspects on his motorcycle and personally leading raids on kidnapping rings. "I want to break historical inertias."
Mexico's future may depend on it. Unable to rely on the police, Calderón has deployed 45,000 soldiers to confront drug gangs by patrolling hot spots, giving cities such as Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso, Texas, the feel of war zones. But experts say military occupations are a short-term fix because traffickers ultimately scurry to set up shop somewhere else. Corralling drug gangs for the long term requires the kind of deep detective work that can uncover money transfers, drug shipments and bribe payments.
Mexico is seeking the capability to pull off the kind of operation announced Thursday by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder: the near-simultaneous, multi-U.S. city arrests of 300 members of the Mexican "La Familia" drug cartel, which has trafficked a flood of methamphetamine into the U.S. while terrorizing Mexico's Michoacán state.
While this week's arrests were a U.S. operation, La Familia is a also key front in García Luna's drug war. Responding to the July arrest of a top La Familia boss in Michoacan, the group captured, tortured and killed a dozen of García Luna's federal agents — some of whom were working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on investigations.