Student, 20, Heads Police in Mexico Drug Town

There's a new police chief in this violent borderland where drug gangs have killed public officials and terrified many citizens into fleeing: a 20-year-old woman who hasn't yet finished her criminology degree.

Marisol Valles Garcia was sworn in Wednesday to bring law and order to the township of about 8,500 that was a string of quiet farming communities until two rival gangs - the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels - began battling for control of its single highway.

The tiny but energetic Valles Garcia says she wants her 12 officers to practice a special brand of community policing.

"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.

Whether her decision is courageous or foolhardy, the appointment shows how desperate the situation has become in the Juarez Valley, a lucrative trafficking corridor along the Texas border.

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.

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.
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