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Originally published Monday, February 15, 2010 at 7:35 PM

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Mexican bishops criticize gov't drug war strategy

Mexico's Roman Catholic bishops have joined in the growing criticism of a drug war that has captured top kingpins but done little to stem gang violence.

Associated Press Writer

MEXICO CITY —

Mexico's Roman Catholic bishops have joined in the growing criticism of a drug war that has captured top kingpins but done little to stem gang violence.

The Mexican Council of Bishops said in a report released Monday that the presence of thousands of troops on the streets and a corrupt judicial system raise human rights concerns.

They said too many suspects are paraded in front of the media before being charged and urged the government to speed up police reforms so that thousands of troops now leading the drug war can return to their barracks.

Since taking office in 2006, President Felipe Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of troops to drug trafficking hotspots across the country, vowing to wrest back territory from brutal cartels. Gang violence has since increased and become more vicious, with beheadings and shootouts occurring daily. More than 15,000 people have died in violence tied to the drug trade in the past three years.

The report comes in the wake of the massacre of 15 people in the border city of Ciudad Juarez that provoked widespread criticism of Calderon's drug war strategy. Most of those killed were students with no known ties to drug gangs, and investigators say the gunmen may have been acting on mistaken information.

Despite the presence of thousands of troops, the city across the border from El Paso, Texas, has become one of the world's deadliest.

Last week, a crowd jeered Calderon during a visit to Ciudad Juarez, where 2,600 people were killed last year. Calderon pledged to spend more on social programs in the city of 1.3 million people, but he vowed not to remove soldiers from the streets.

Last weekend, the government deployed 400 more federal police to Ciudad Juarez. Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said Monday a special unit investigating kidnappings and extortion would also be sent to the city.

The bishops acknowledged that Calderon's nationwide military deployment initially had widespread public support, but they warned that the troop presence must be temporary.

"As time passed, the participation of the armed forces in the fight against organized crime has created uncertainty in the population," the report said. "The armed forces have the obligation to respect human rights."

International human rights groups have accused soldiers of arbitrary killings and other abuses in the drug war.

Mexico's Defense Department insists the incidents have been isolated and are being investigated. Calderon says his goal is to turn the drug war back to reformed police forces, and hundreds of officers have been fired or arrested for suspected criminal ties under his administration.

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But corruption scandals still abound.

On Monday, authorities said two Tijuana police officers were arrested for threatening waitresses at a restaurant in the city of Tijuana, where the local government has launched an aggressive effort to clean up its force.

The officers allegedly shot at fellow police who arrived at the scene Sunday in response to complaints. They tested positive for cocaine after their arrest, said Baja California Assistant State Attorney Martha Imelda Almanza.

The bishops said few suspected criminals in Mexico are brought to justice because of police corruption and inefficiency. At the same time, the report said some tactics lend themselves to jailing innocent people.

The bishops criticized the long-standing practice of parading suspects before the media before they are charged. Many of those suspects are eventually released for lack of evidence or end up being tried for lesser crimes than announced to the public.

Authorities must "respect the judicial principle that someone is innocent until proven otherwise," the report said. "Because now we see that detainees are exhibited before the media before they are brought before judicial authorities."

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