The administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox is struggling to limit damage to its already tarnished police force, following a drug scandal at the vacation resort of Cancun. Experts warn the drug cartels are gaining power.
Prosecutors from the attorney general's office have arrested 25 police officers and two civilian workers. They are still hunting for 13 suspects. The officers detained are from the local, state, and federal forces.
Eight are charged with murder or accessory to murder, while others are facing organized crime and drug-trafficking charges.
The crackdown suggests that the country's powerful drug cartels have continued to penetrate police organizations along Mexico's Caribbean coast.
Authorities say they broke up a drug cartel allegedly being aided by the individuals who should have been trying to bring its criminal members to justice. The scandal unfolded after three federal agents and two others were gunned down on November 25. Investigators claim those agents raided a house, stealing cash and cocaine, which enraged cartel bosses who then sent assassins to kill them.
Mexico's special prosecutor, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, says those arrested "have dirtied us and dirtied the good name of Mexicans."
The crime, even in a climate of heightened drug-related violence, has shocked the Mexican government, which said it is determined to prevent Cancun from once again becoming a major transit route for Colombian cocaine to Mexico and other parts of the world.
Professor Celia Toro is an expert on drug cartels at the Center for International Relations at the College of Mexico, says drug traffickers have all but declared war on Mexican authorities.
"It is striking what happened in Cancun, because as you said, to kill police in that way, no matter whether local or state, is a very daring act on the part of traffickers," said Ms. Toro. "It means that they feel quite comfortable that nothing will happen."
Roberto Palazuelos, a leading criminal lawyer in Mexico City, agrees that the latest incident of violence is unprecedented. He says despite the tremendous efforts by the Fox administration to crack down on narcotics-related crime, the cartels are becoming stronger and more violent.
"With all the violence, and crimes related to drug trafficking the jails are swamped with a new type of criminal, which is the drug trafficker," he said. "Now Mexico is really a victim in this phenomena, because we were not producers of drugs in the past, nor consumers. But now we are producers, now we are consumers and also the drug cartels in Mexico are just about the strongest in the world."
Lorenzo Meyer, a political historian and an expert of Mexico-U.S. relations, says this latest scandal involving the Mexican police shows that the only force that can effectively be used against the cartels in Mexico is the army.
"The police is really irrelevant," he said. "It seems that there is only now this thin red line, in the war with the cartels, and it's the army. The police you are talking about three or four policemen in Cancun that were executed, among other members of the cartels. They were part of the cartels. We have not had that in the army. The army is always present in moments of crisis. But we have not had a direct link in recent times between the army and the drug dealers."
Experts warn that Cancun is likely to remain an important transit area for drugs to the United States and Europe, despite the efforts to stop the flow by the Fox administration. Its location makes it easy for drug cartels to smuggle cocaine in small boats from Colombia, along the coast of Central America to Mexico's Caribbean resort spots such as Cancun.