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Chicago cop helps train Mexico officers to fight drug cartels

Chicago Police Detective Oscar Seledmeets Mexico President Felipe CalderPresident ObamAug. 10 2009 during North American Leaders Summit Guadalajara.

Chicago Police Detective Oscar Seledon meets Mexico President Felipe Calderon and President Obama on Aug. 10, 2009 during the North American Leaders Summit in Guadalajara.

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Updated: January 13, 2012 8:10AM

Two years ago, Chicago Police Detective Oscar Seledon traveled to Mexico to train rookie officers preparing to fight the murderous drug cartels there.

His students are now members of Mexico’s federal police force. Sadly, though, several of them have been killed.

“They were passionate about the crime occurring in Mexico and wanted to make a change,” Seledon said. “They knew what they were getting into. They were just fed up.”

Seledon said he was among at least a dozen Chicago Police officers who volunteered to train recruits at the federal police academy in San Luis Potosi in 2009. The Chicago officers were part of a State Department program to strengthen Mexico’s national police force.

Under the Merida Initiative, the United States has funneled $1.6 billion to Mexico to combat drug trafficking and production in the region since 2008. The program has provided Mexico with helicopters, patrol cars, trucks and inspection equipment. The national police force has grown from 6,000 members to 35,000 under the program.

Now the State Department is focusing on training state and local police agencies in Mexico, starting with those in the violence-plagued region bordering Texas.

The idea is to create “model police units” in each of Mexico’s 32 states. Those units — each with about 450 officers — could help out police agencies in other parts of the country. They would have the same training and same communication systems.

In October, William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, met with Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy to encourage him to renew the police department’s participation in the training program.

“They had a positive and productive conversation,” police spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said. “In terms of what’s next, we are in the early stages of discussing a potential [memorandum of understanding] with the State Department.”

The State Department pays the trainers at federal rates and provides food, lodging, transportation and security. U.S. police departments are free to choose any one of the State Department’s training programs around the world — including those in the Iraq, Afghanistan, northern Africa, Central and South America and Southeast Asia.

The trainers are usually deployed on 30-day stints. Typically, a city will send a team of four officers at a time.

Currently, there’s a need for big-city trainers who are fluent in Spanish to join the effort in Mexico, a senior State Department official said. U.S. police departments benefit from the relationships they build with their counterparts in Mexico, the official said.

Seledon, a 44-year-old robbery detective on Chicago’s West Side, said he worked with training officers from Houston, Canada, Spain and Colombia when he was in Mexico in 2009.

Seledon said he went to Mexico while he was on furlough from the Chicago Police Department. He taught crime-scene processing, which was being done very differently in Mexico.

“When a federal officer showed up to a homicide in Mexico, they couldn’t do anything without orders from a public minister,” Seledon said. “Sometimes it could take up to a day. They weren’t conducting interviews, roping off the crime scene or taking pictures like we do. Families would actually move a body and take it home.”

Still, Seledon said he was impressed by the qualifications of the recruits. Most were fresh out of universities and many had earned advanced degrees. There were even some dentists in his classes.

State Department officials hope the improvements to Mexico’s police force will turn the tide in the war on the cartels, which are major suppliers of narcotics to Chicago drug dealers.

More than 40,000 people have been killed in cartel-related violence in Mexico since 2006. Seledon said he would volunteer for another training program in Mexico if he had the chance, but he acknowledged the risks.

“I felt slightly in danger,” he said of his last stint. “They took different routes when they moved us from our location to the police academy. They were using caution.”

Indeed, two federal agents were shot in February in San Luis Potosi state, four hours north of Mexico City.

Jaime Zapata, an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was killed in the shooting and another ICE agent was wounded. They had been meeting with their counterparts in San Luis Potosi where the federal police academy is located, officials said.

In April, a reputed member of the Zetas cartel was arrested in the shootings.

U.S. officials hope Mexico is on the same track as Colombia. U.S.-aided training of Colombia’s national police force led to a breakthrough against drug cartels there in 2005. In Mexico, 35 cartel leaders have been nabbed in the past three years, compared to only eight from 2001 to 2008, officials say.

“We are in the process of being on a downward glide path in Colombia,” Brownfield said. “In Mexico, we’re approaching what I predict will be the peak of the violence.”

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