A 20-year-old criminology student has been named the chief of police in one of the most dangerous municipalities in Mexico's violence-wracked northern state of Chihuahua.
Marisol Valles Garcia, the only person to accept the post, took charge of public security for Guadalupe Distrito Bravo on Monday, according to radio station network Notisistema. The district has a population of 9,148 residents, according to newspaper La Jornada, and comes with at least one police car, Notisistema reported.
The state of Chihuahua has borne the brunt of spiraling drug-related violence that has left around 28,000 dead throughout Mexico in the last four years. Guadalupe's former mayor was assassinated in June, and local police have been kidnapped and murdered. At least eight people were slain in the last week alone in Guadalupe, news.com.au reported.
The tiny but energetic Valles Garcia says she wants her 13 officers to practice a special brand of community policing. She plans to hire more women — she currently has three — and assign each to a neighborhood to talk with families, promote civic values and detect potential crimes before they happen.
"My people are out there going door to door, looking for criminals, and (in homes) where there are none, trying to teach values to the families," she said before she was presented to the public on Wednesday.
Valles Garcia said during her swearing in that her job will not be to fight drug trafficking because that responsibility falls on other organs of government, according to Notisistema. Instead, she will focus on preventative programs for schools and neighborhoods, rehabilitating public spaces and fostering better relationships between neighbors in order to improve general security, according to Notisistema.
She has not discarded the possibility of creating a cycling police force, according to Notisistema.
Guadalupe lies in the Valle de Juarez, which is thought to be controlled by Gabino Salas Valenciano, aka The Engineer, La Jornada reported. Salas is part of the the Sinaloa cartel, which is led by Joaquin El Chapo Guzman.
Local residents say the drug gangs take over at night, riding through the towns in convoys of SUVs and pickups, assault rifles and even .50-caliber sniper rifles at the ready. The assistant mayor of nearby El Porvenir and the mayor of Distrito Bravos were killed recently even after they took refuge in nearby Ciudad Juarez. Valles Garcia's predecessor was killed in July 2009.
Drug cartels in many drug-plagued parts of Mexico have killed or threatened police chiefs and their departments, buying off some officers and prompting some others to quit en masse.
While the bullet holes that pockmarked police headquarters in Praxedis have been painted over, police buildings in other towns in the valley remain empty, with broken windows and few sign of life.
In past months, soldiers and then federal police largely took over patrols, but they stick mainly to the main road, afraid to venture down unfamiliar dirt roads that branch off into the valley and are well-traveled by drug traffickers.
"Let's hope it is not a reckless act on her part," said Miguel Sarre, a professor who specializes in Mexican law enforcement at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. He said that "a municipal police force cannot protect itself against such powerful forces."
Mexico's federal government has struggled to cope with the drug cartel threat to the underpaid, untrained and often corrupt local police that work for Mexico's roughly 2,022 municipal police forces.
President Felipe Calderon has recognized the problem faced by local police forces, whose officers earn average monthly salaries of only 4,000 pesos (about $300). Most of them have completed less than 10 years of schooling and are either at basic education levels or illiterate, according to the report.
In some cities and towns, entire municipal forces have been fired or arrested for allegedly cooperating with drug gangs, and officials say their low wages and poor weaponry — most use shotguns and pistols, while drug gangs have assault rifles — make them ineffectual or worse.
Calderon has proposed a "unified command" structure in which Mexico's 32 state governments would have state police take on the main responsibility, backed up by federal officers and soldiers where needed.
Observers like Sarre generally support that idea, given the vulnerability and lack of trustworthiness of local forces. "As long as there is no broad solution, municipal police forces will have to be substituted by state and federal forces," he said.
Two bodyguards have been assigned to protect Valles Garcia. While the cartels have been more than able to penetrate much tighter security details — killing mayors and police chiefs throughout northern Mexico —she says she isn't afraid.
For residents, her personal courage may not be enough.
Amalia Garcia, 58, had to send her five children to live in Ciudad Juarez for their safety, but now lives in Praxedis with her husband.
"Whoever is here, man or woman, things are not going to change," said Garcia. "Things are bad here, and nobody pays any attention." '