Mexican Police Accused of Shielding Drug Cartel

Three police officers and two other men were arrested on suspicion of working for a drug cartel in central Mexico, federal authorities said Sunday. The former state security chief and the police chief of the state capital were detained for questioning.

Investigators uncovered the alleged police corruption ring after the arrest earlier this month of 14 alleged members of the Beltran Leyva drug cartel in Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos state, the Public Safety Department said in a statement.

The head of the Morelos police vehicle recovery unit was arrested for allegedly selling stolen cars and auto parts to the cartel, the statement said, while a former state police officer was arrested on suspicion of serving as a hit man.

Two Cuernavaca municipal police officers were accused of stealing cars and kidnapping for the Beltran Leyva gang, and a fifth suspect was also arrested as an alleged hit man.

Federal police came under fire as they raided a Cuernavaca building where four of the suspects were arrested Saturday, the department said. Police confiscated several weapons inside along with a banner bearing an unspecified message for President Felipe Calderon.

Federal investigators are questioning former Morelos state Public Safety Secretary Luis Angel Cabeza de Vaca Rodriguez and Cuernavaca police chief Francisco Sanchez Gonzalez, according to an Attorney General's Office press officer. The official, who could not be named because of agency policy, declined to provide further details.

Officials at the Public Safety Department could not be reached for further comment.

Corruption permeates all levels of police in Mexico, a major obstacle to Calderon's U.S.-backed campaign to crush brutal drug gangs. Calderon insists he is cracking down: Last year, his government rooted out more than two dozen high-level government security officials, including a former drug czar, who were allegedly paid to protect the Sinaloa cartel.

On Saturday, the governor of Zacatecas, another central state, said prison guards were likely complicit in the escape of 53 inmates, including at least 27 with links to the Gulf cartel. About 20 gunmen freed the prisoners in a raid that lasted just five minutes.

Calderon has sent more than 45,000 soldiers to combat drug gangs, although the army has also been accused of abuses in the offensive.

Drug violence has killed more than 10,750 in the last 2 1/2 years.

Cabeza de Vaca had held his post until last week, but the statement from the Morelos government described him as the ex-public safety chief.

The brief statement said only that it was up to federal authorities to give information on their legal status, and that the Morelos government was cooperating with the investigation.

It was unclear if Sanchez had been removed as police chief. Local newspapers reported that he had been fired. The Morelos government statement said only that Mayor Roque Gonzalez had temporarily taken the reigns of the city police force in Cuernavaca, the Morelos state capital.

Phones rang unanswered Sunday at Morelos government offices. Cuernavaca city officials also could not be reached for comment.