Friday, November 24, 2006

Police chief is killed after 23 days in post

Sean Mattson
Express-News Mexico Correspondent

MONTERREY, Mexico — Santa Catarina's police chief was shot dead early Thursday — after only 23 days on the job — in a brazen assault that marked the latest case of a high-ranking law enforcer dying at the hands of organized criminals in northern Mexico.

Chief Balthazar Gómez Trejo and City Councilman Osvaldo Rodriguez were killed as the two had coffee in a convenience store after a funeral in the Monterrey suburb.

Gómez was at least the fifth high-ranking law enforcement officer killed in the state of Nuevo León, of which Monterrey is the capital, in 2006.

The two deaths bring to 49 the number of killings linked to warring drug traffickers, according to a tally kept by El Norte, a Monterrey newspaper.

At least eight victims were active duty police officers, including the state's top police detective, Marcelo Garza, who was slain in September.

Police chiefs from three other state municipalities have been killed in separate incidents around the state this year.

Despite growing outcry from the region's powerful industrialists and a society unaccustomed to violence in the streets, these killings remain unsolved.

"He was a good person," Jesús Marcos Giacoman, the president of Monterrey's Chamber of Commerce, said of Gómez.

"He was honest, honorable, well-intentioned (and) working in favor of the community."

Giacoman echoed the Monterrey establishment's shock at seeing the once-peaceful city of about 4 million register about one execution per week.

"We can no longer (call Monterrey) the safest city ... in the country," he said. "But we can say it's the least unsafe city."

State authorities have talked tough on crime but often point to national or international problems when explaining why they have been powerless to stem the wave of killings.

Gov. Natividad González Parás is lobbying for sweeping criminal justice system changes across Mexico.

Officials believe powerful drug gangs — fighting a turf war for local distribution and trafficking routes to the United States — have infiltrated city police departments, giving commanders the option of cooperating for bribes or being killed.

Police officers are sometimes killed because they are perceived to be working for a rival cartel, even if they are not, said Jorge Chabat, an academic who studies the drug trade.

"It's clear that someone didn't like his designation," Chabat said.

"These (killings) are also messages to the police ... to show who is in charge in the zone," he said.

Gómez's slaying sends a strong message less than one month after new mayors took office in Nuevo León's 57 municipalities.

Mayors, who cannot be re-elected and serve a single three-year term, typically appoint new police chiefs upon taking office.

Gómez was threatened in the days before his death, according to media reports.

Local media also reported that the weapon used in the killing, a 9 mm pistol, had been issued to a state penitentiary.

Antonio Garza García, the state's secretary of public security, defended the state's controls over its weapons but did not rule out any possibilities.

"If the investigations ... imply that it was a weapon of the state, be assured that we are going to act ... and strongly, against the person to had been assigned the weapon," he said.

A police commander in Santa Catarina declined to comment on the case.

González said authorities believed the case is linked to organized crime.

"The severest ... problem that Mexico has at this moment is organized crime," he said.


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