July 9, 2008 / 10:24 PM / 11 years ago

Mexico police in spotlight after disco crush deaths

By Catherine Bremer

MEXICO CITY, July 9 (Reuters) - Mexico’s government is under new pressure to tackle rampant police incompetence after a damning report by human rights investigators blamed police commanders for a fatal disco raid that killed 12 people.

Mexico City’s police chief, Joel Ortega, and top prosecutor Rodolfo Felix quit on Tuesday after human rights officials said police "brutality" led to nine youths and three officers being crushed to death during a June 20 raid on underage drinkers in a club in the capital.

Video images of teenagers being squashed by a wall of police pressing in on the disco’s small doorway have triggered furious protests and shone an embarrassing light on police ineptness just as Washington is sending $400 million to help Mexico’s police and army battle drug gangs.

Mexico City’s human rights ombudsman, Emilio Alvarez, said "concerted" police actions caused the tragedy and accused officials of chopping out bits of video evidence from the disco, which grieving relatives have turned into a shrine.

"This shines a terrible light on both the stupidity of the police and the inability of the police to participate effectively in any kind of investigation," said Dan Lund, head of Mexico City-based polling and research firm MUND Americas.

Analysts expect Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard — a rising political star who is seen as the left’s best chance in the 2012 presidential election — to survive the scandal.

Until it was stained by the disco scandal, Ortega’s police had been doing well at bringing down rampant crime rates.

But video footage of police pushing on the crowd of moaning youths and then milling around and failing to administer first aid to victims writhing on the ground have dealt a blow to President Felipe Calderon’s efforts to improve the image of the country’s notoriously bungling cops.

As many as half of Mexico’s police force could be in the pay of drug gangs, helping them smuggle narcotics or turning a blind eye to their organized crime activities, analysts say.

"A TRAP THAT COST LIVES"

"Police actions, decisions and the true objectives of the operation created a trap that cost lives," rights ombudsman Alvarez said of the disco crush. Some three dozen police have been charged over the deaths, along with the club’s owner.

Mexicans, who tend to be wary of police in general, were also shocked by the way officers mistreated some survivors, both male and female — taking them to detention centers where they were stripped naked and marked with numbers.

"The government’s principal responsibility is only just starting," wrote veteran political commentator Sergio Sarmiento in the Reforma newspaper on Wednesday.

Calderon recently unveiled a shiny new federal police control center in the crime-ridden city district of Iztapalapa, as he tries to smarten up police practices.

Mexico’s police and army are being watched closely by Washington after objections from Mexico persuaded the U.S. Congress to soften human rights conditions some lawmakers wanted to attach to the drug war aid.

The disco crush coincided with a media scandal over video clips of police cadets in central Mexico trying out torture methods on each other as part of training techniques now being investigated by the national human rights commission.

Ebrard, himself an ex-police chief, has vowed a shake-up of the capital’s police force, where paltry wages put off bright school-leavers and encourage bribe-taking. But analysts say turning officers into professionals could take decades.

"The easiest thing in the world is to cut off a few heads," said Lund. "The hardest thing is to reform." (Editing by Anthony Boadle)




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