October 21, 2010 in Nation/World

Violent border town installs 20-year-old as police chief

Mayor liked her proposals for making region safer
Olivia Torres Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Twenty-year-old Marisol Valles Garcia is the new police chief of the border town of Praxedis G. Guerrero.
(Full-size photo)

PRAXEDIS G. GUERRERO, Mexico – 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 a township of about 8,500 that has been transformed from a string of quiet farming communities into a lawless no man’s land. Her predecessor was gunned down in July 2009 and the town had been unable to find a replacement for more than a year.

Two rival gangs – the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels – have been battling for control of its single highway, a lucrative drug trafficking route along the Texas border.

The tiny but energetic Valles Garcia, whose only police experience was a stint as a department secretary, 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 in her first official appearance on Wednesday. “The project is … simple, based on values, principles and crime prevention in contacts house-by-house.”

Valles Garcia has been assigned two bodyguards but won’t carry a gun. She says she will leave most of the decisions about weapons and tactics to the town’s mayor, Jose Luis Guerrero.

She didn’t respond when asked why she seeks women to do the job. She wasn’t even in the market to do it herself.

But Guerrero solicited proposals from residents on how to make the town safer, and he liked hers so much, he offered her the chief’s job. She took it, she said, because she loves the town where she has lived for 10 years.

Whether her decision is courageous or foolhardy, the appointment shows how desperate the situation has become in the Juarez Valley. 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.

“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.

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