MEXICO CITY – Mexico's latest drug battle does not unfold in the border badlands or remote mountains where opium poppies grow, but on the small screen, where a TV show strives to save the image of long-notorious "federales" by presenting them as crime-fighting heroes.
The TV series "El Equipo," or "The Team," is modeled after the popular "CSI" series in the U.S. and it was created to convince Mexicans, and now U.S. viewers, that the country has finally gotten its act together with a professional, trustworthy federal police force.
After a run on Mexico's Televisa network, with a middling 14.6 percent of the households as viewers, the show premieres on the U.S. Spanish-language network Univision on Thursday.
The series stars four street-smart investigative agents who are likable, honest and attractive. They rescue hostages and rappel from tall buildings. In every episode they get their man.
"We need to start changing the perception. There is nothing wrong with being a cop," said executive producer Pedro Torres. "Being a cop is a job that demands sacrifice and a lot of preparation."
While Torres says the show is his idea, the federal police have given the series so much cooperation, with access to its command center, equipment and a U.S.-donated Black Hawk helicopter, that critics are calling it government propaganda.
Police cooperation with TV shows isn't unusual in the United States, where scores of crime dramas have aired for years. But it irritates some in Mexico, where police shows are far less common.
One congresswoman filed a formal complaint with the anti-corruption ministry, demanding an accounting of public funds used to produce "The Team."
"It is immoral to try to change the perception of security through a TV show," said federal Rep. Leticia Quezada of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. "It is bread and circuses."
President Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party has increased the number of federal police agents from 6,000 to more than 35,000 since he took office in 2006 while beefing up background checks and qualifications.
Still, Mexico's cops have had trouble shaking their bad reputation. Despite decades of repeated reforms, federal police officials keep finding their officers, and sometimes even themselves, accused of brutality or corruption.
The National Human Rights Commission said the federal police department was among the most-complained-about agencies last year.
Two federal police agents with top positions in Mexico's Interpol offices were arrested in 2009 and charged with taking payoffs from drug cartels. Even the acting federal police commissioner resigned in 2008 and was later arrested on charges of aiding a drug gang.
Mexico has gone through a string of federal police agencies since the 1970s, promoting each in turn as a cleaned-up alternative to the disgraced agency it replaced.
Torres said he wanted to produce an American-style TV crime series, inspired by the new model under Calderon.
"They know that good triumphs over evil" is the slogan of "The Team."
The show portrays agents Santiago, Mateo, Magda and Fermin freeing kidnapping victims and snagging big-time drug traffickers. Their intelligence work tells them exactly when the capos arrive at airports or throw lavish parties, and they deploy SWAT-like teams of officers accordingly. They work undercover as electricians, waiters and pest workers to get close to their targets.
"No torture with seltzer water and hot peppers up the nose, no electric shocks, no bribes. It's more like the show is about the Swiss police, not the Mexican," quipped Mexican radio commentator Enrique Galvan Ochoa after "The Team" debuted last month.
Through Televisa, which dominates Mexico's television market, Torres got access to the command center, uniforms, large-caliber weapons and shots of helicopters taking off, including one the U.S. delivered to Mexico as part of its Merida Initiative to fight drug trafficking. Federal officers trained the actors and sometimes served as extras.
Torres defends the rosy picture of police work.
"Obviously if police are going to give you support, you have to show their point of view in a way that doesn't insult the institution," he said.
Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna did not want to comment on the TV show, said spokesman Jose Ramon Salinas, citing the anti-corruption complaint.
But Garcia Luna recently told station Radio Formula that the series is an "important way to interface with the community."
Agents in the series often echo the department's public relations messages, including those encouraging crime victims to call police: "With no report, we can't formally respond," the actors say.
Many Mexicans say they don't report crimes to authorities, fearing they may be speaking to the criminals themselves. Active-duty and former police officers are also caught when officials break up kidnapping or drug gangs.
When Calderon recently celebrated Mexico's first Day of the Police, he asked for hard and honest work from the officers and respect for police forces from the public.
"We need to transform our police, but we also need to recognize the honor, responsibility and vocation of our good police," he said.
Torres said his show may lure more young people to join the force because many Mexicans aspire to be like characters in soap operas.
It happened before, Torres said. In the late 1980s, after he filmed a music video showing Mexican crooner Luis Miguel as a cadet, young men wanted to enlist in the military. Army officials could not confirm whether recruitment changed in those years.
But so far, there are no plans for a second season.
In fact, the police series was outperformed by another soap opera, Telemundo's "La Reina del Sur" or "Queen of the South," which chronicles the rise of a Mexican female drug trafficker.
Mexicans may still be more inclined to believe that a beautiful young woman can become a dangerous outlaw than that their country can be protected by a reliable police force.