MEXICO CITY – Following the detention of the entire municipal police force in the Mexican city of Zihuatanejo, a pleasant U.S. expat hotspot on the Pacific coast, 20 alleged drug traffickers were found to have been masquerading as cops.
Last Tuesday’s bust was conducted by state and federal police, along with the Marine Corps. Acting on mounting evidence of corruption in that precinct, they detained all 246 officers and officials until they could provide official credentials.
At the end of the operation, 51 arrests were made, including three high-ranking officers, but 31 were later released on charges of operating without full accreditation. The remaining 20 were charged with ties to organized crime and impersonation of public officials.
“Many of them are real police officers, but who we believe have strong ties to organized crime in the region,” Zihuatanejo’s Public Security Chief Carlos Cruz told Fox News. “The cartels are very powerful in the state of Guerrero, and we are working to purge our public bodies of links to drug trafficking.”
Since last week’s operation, the Pacific resort’s municipal force has been taken off duty, leaving the state police and Mexican military to patrol the streets.
“It was a shock,” said David Claassen, originally from Ohio, but who has lived in Mexico for the past three years. “We had no idea this was going on, as Zihuatanejo is such a peaceful and friendly place.”
Both the town’s mayor Gustavo Garcia and the Municipal Police Chief David Nogueda refused to comment, yet sources close to the government said it is only a matter of time before the Municipal Police force is disbanded and control of Zihuatanejo is handed over to state authorities.
“The municipal police will cease to exist once this scandal dies down,” said one magistrate who declined to be identified. “They are extremely corrupt and have only made organized crime worse in Zihua.”
The magistrate, who works in the police station and was a daily witness to organized crime’s infiltration into the force, said he needs to change his phone number once a month to avoid threatening calls from local gangsters.
“Whenever a narco was brought to me after being arrested, I would receive a call from the street boss demanding his immediate release. I had to comply because they know where my family lives and would threaten me terribly,” he said.
“I would fine the gangster $25 for his arrest, but the money would be collected by my bosses here in the precinct and never arrive where it should have,” he told Fox News. “There’s nothing anyone can do, because if you speak out against the corruption, your life is in danger.”
One narco masquerading as a police officer, known as ‘El Cadete’ (The Cadet), had been recruited into the municipal police force just 20 days before the bust, but was already well-known to the long-serving officers — he has been arrested numerous times in possession of illegal firearms in the past, a felony which usually carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence in Mexico.
Suspicions over local narcos masquerading as cops were first aroused in early April, when three municipal police officers disappeared from the precinct after protesting about their colleagues’ activities.
Weeks later, on April 25, those three men were killed when police officers who later turned out to be fake attacked a security outpost in neighboring Ixtapa.
“The killers were the same men who I saw every day in the precinct,” the magistrate told Fox News. “They killed the young men in broad daylight and later laughed about it.”
Guerrero state, which is the world’s third most prolific producer of opium gum, all of which is sent north to fuel the U.S. heroin epidemic, is currently Mexico’s most murderous region.
The state is home to more than half of the 62 drug cartels known to be operating in Mexico today, and while the majority of the crime is centered on Acapulco, Zihuatanejo is going through a spate of violence that has seen nine murders in the seven days since the raid on the town’s municipal police.
“There are two gangs operating here: the Sangre Nueva Generacion (‘New Generation Blood’, a group aligned to Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel), which controls the beachfront and touristic areas, and the Fulana group controls the villages and wider region around the town,” one local newspaper reporter told Fox News.
While the locals in Zihuatanejo were taken by surprise at the sudden operation, few were shocked by the arrests made.
“You can’t trust the cops here, the only people they take care of are the tourists,” said Miguel Angel Romero. “They don’t care about the terror the locals live with in the neighborhoods away from the beach.”
A street level municipal police officer in Zihuatanejo earns $360 a month, a wage few are likely to risk taking a bullet for by defying local gangsters, who offer additional compensation for the authorities’ silence.
“Now we have the state police on patrol, things can improve,” the magistrate said. “They are not afraid to shoot when they come across the narcos, but things will only get better if they are up for the fight, otherwise it will be business as usual.”
Alasdair Baverstock is a freelance writer based in Mexico.