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05/10/2011

Bigger, badder, tougher

One of the bizarre things about the security situation in Mexico is that the worse things get, the more some law enforcement agents seem to want to look like they are narcos.

For lack of a better phrase, I’d call it the “bigger, badder, tougher” phenomenon.

This comes to mind because the other morning I was in Durango and met with Juan Carlos Gutierrez, the head of the National Action Party in the state, which unlike at the national level is in opposition there.

We talked about many things when Gutierrez turned the conversation to the PRI governor of the state, Jorge Herrera, and the sizable security contingent he maintains. “There are 16 pickups outside the governor’s mansion even when he’s not there,” Gutierrez asserted. “He and his wife have more security than any other governor in the country.”

I can’t speak to the truth of that. Durango is a dangerous place and I don’t begrudge any one there doing what is necessary to stay alive.

But then Gutierrez whipped out his cell phone and asked me to look at some photos. He said they belonged to one of the governor’s top aides. The photos showed a variety of vehicles, all without license plates and most with dark tinted windows.

“These vehicles seem more like vehicles of the capos,” he said. “They say it is so they can conduct security operations.”

If you are thinking it might be dangerous to conduct a “security” operation against narcos when your units are in vehicles that look like narco vehicles, you’d be right. And it’s not just vehicles. Security details of top officials across northern Mexico seem to like to shed their uniforms and drive the same kind of huge vehicles that narcos prefer.

How is an ordinary citizen to tell the difference?

This can lead to mix-ups. Back in January, plainclothes guards for Ciudad Juarez Mayor Héctor Murguía got in a shootout with, of all people, federal police. The guards were outside a house, where Murguia had a meeting with a priest. Uniformed federal police saw these guys carrying big guns and told them to put their weapons down. According to several versions, the guards told them to stick it. Pretty soon, bullets were flying and one of the mayor’s guards was killed. Read here for a Spanish-language story.

So why would law enforcement officials, be they bodyguards or others, want to ditch the uniforms? Obvious. They don’t want to be a target. If they have big guns, and they drive in cars without plates, people tend to get out of the way fast.

I later asked the Durango governor’s chief security aid, Juan Rafael Rosales, about whether state law enforcement personnel were using vehicles without license plates and tinted windows. He nearly jumped out of his chair.

 “It is completely prohibited that our officials . . . would use their vehicles improperly,” he said, adding that regulations prohibit state vehicles from having heavily tinted windows or to operate without license plates. “Of all the officials authorized to travel in convoys with vehicles carrying bodyguards, none should be with tinted windows and without license plates.”

I’m not sure whether I believe this is the case. Certainly, I’ve seen many vehicles in the north of Mexico without license plates. If someone without a uniform got out and identified himself as a police officer, I’d probably want to run away fast.

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sean hanny

unfortunately, Mexico is very Kafka-esque, a super shadow world where the straight truth is hardly ever spoken, definitely not to foreignors and probably never from the mouths of officials...notherners take or perception on reality does not apply here...we can only hope to steer clear and duck when the glass shatters...I would hate to live in Durango where the natural machismo of the men is only matched by their lack of couth and education...big renegade cowboy land all narco tainted and filled with rural areas where narcos reign...I mean, to wit: that mass grave recently discovered...

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Tim

This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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