CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Drug cartels are sending a brutal message to police and soldiers in cities across Mexico: Join us or die.
The threat appears in recruiting banners hung across roadsides and in publicly posted death lists. Officers get warnings over their two-way radios. At least four high-ranking police officials were gunned down this month, including Mexico's acting federal police chief.
Mexico has battled for years to clean up its security forces and win them the public's respect. But Mexicans generally assume that police and even soldiers are corrupt until proven otherwise, and the honest ones lack resources, training and the assurance that their colleagues are watching their backs.
Police who take on the cartels feel isolated and vulnerable when they become targets, as did 22 commanders in Ciudad Juarez when drug traffickers named them on a handwritten death list left at a monument to fallen police this year. It was addressed to "those who still don't believe" in the power of the cartels.
Of the 22, seven have been killed and three wounded in assassination attempts. Of the others, all but one have quit, and city officials said he didn't want to be interviewed.
On Sunday, city spokesman Sergio Belmonte confirmed that Juarez's police chief had submitted his resignation and said he would be replaced by a military official on leave from the armed forces.
"These are attacks directed at the top commanders of the city police, and it is not just happening in Ciudad Juarez," Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz said at the funeral of the latest victim, police director Juan Antonio Roman Garcia. "It is happening in Nuevo Laredo, in Tijuana, in this entire region," he said. "They are attacking top commanders to destabilize the police force."
The killings are in response to a crackdown launched by President Felipe Calderon, who has sent thousands of soldiers and federal police across the nation to confront the cartels.
Drug lords have hit back by sending killers to attack police with hand grenades and assault rifles.
Police are increasingly giving up. Last week, U.S. officials revealed that three Mexican police commanders have crossed into the United States to request asylum, saying they are unprotected and fear for their lives.
"It's almost like a military fight," said Jayson Ahern, the deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "I don't think that generally the American public has any sense of the level of violence that occurs on the border."
On May 8, Edgar Millan Gomez, who had taken over as acting federal police chief just 10 weeks previously, was shot by a lone gunman outside his Mexico City apartment. Police blamed the Sinaloa cartel and said a police officer was among the suspects arrested.
In Ciudad Juarez, police have been given assault rifles — they used to just carry pistols — but also are instructed not to patrol streets alone. More than 100 of the city's 1,700-member force have resigned or retired since January.