Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Saturday, 6 February 2010

Policing Mexico's deadliest beat

Blanca Del Rio

Blanca Del Rio, has become one of Ciudad Juarez's new police cadets

Police in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez have a tough beat, with one of the world's highest murder rates and the all-powerful drug cartels to combat. Yet eager recruits are still ready to join the fray, as Katya Adler reports.

Knick-knacks and wooden crosses adorn the pale pink walls of Blanca Del Rio's tiny bungalow.

It is impeccably clean and tidy. It almost hurts to observe the loving, painstaking attention to detail.

Blanca has little, but makes much of it. Six-year-old Christian opened the door to us. He was wearing a police helmet, so big for him, it had slipped down his nose.

His mum was in the bedroom ironing her uniform, he said. Blanca, a 25-year-old mother of three, is a police cadet in Ciudad Juarez, a city with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

This was the eve of her passing out parade.

'Plata o plomo' is the local saying - 'silver or lead' - you either work for the cartels or they kill you

I warmed to her immediately. Immensely loving towards her children, gentle and self-deprecating, her large brown eyes and fragile frame belied immense determination and strength of character.

I searched in vain for signs of nervousness in her face.

"Wasn't she even a little afraid about being on the frontline in Juarez?"

"Oh no!" she said.

"I just want to do my duty here. Not to be corrupt or corrupted. My goal is to be a good officer." A big aim in a dangerous city where drug cartels rule.

Protection money

Their turf war cost more than 2,000 lives here last year alone. Blanca will always have to wear civilian clothes, when leaving or coming back home.

Map of Mexico

If word spreads that she is now a police officer, her young family could become a target.

"Plata o plomo," is the local saying. "Silver or lead," you either work for the cartels or they kill you.

Young Christian knows more about life's dangers here than a child ever should.

His father was recently murdered in front of him. His crime - not paying drug gangs the protection money they demanded.

Christian's grandfather, a policeman himself, was killed before he was born.

So what did Christian think of his mother's decision to join the police force?

"I'm proud of her," he whispered. His eyes fixed firmly on the floor, avoiding having to meet mine.

There were mixed feelings for thousands of other families across Ciudad Juarez that night.

Their sons and daughters, husbands and wives would officially become local police officers the next day.

It was a reason for pride but, after only four months' training, you could not help wondering what lay ahead for these new recruits, facing the mighty drug cartels.

Retaliation culture

Jose Reyes, a softly-spoken law professor and mayor of Juarez, knows the dangers of fighting crime here only too well. Soon after taking office, he fired half the local police for corruption.

Dozens of Juarez officials involved in the purge have since been murdered in retaliation.

The mayor travels in an armoured car, escorted by armed bodyguards.

He has sent his family to live over the border in the United States, in an attempt to keep them safe.

Ironically, it is the United States - the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs - that, to a large extent, is at the root of the bloodshed in Mexico.

Mexico's drug cartels are involved in a fight to the death over the multi-billion-dollar business that is smuggling locally grown marijuana and Colombian cocaine over the border.

This culture of impunity and corruption is why I felt a sense of dread as I watched Blanca and her radiant fellow cadets shake Mayor Reyes' hand at their graduation ceremony

America's liberal gun laws also help to fuel the drug wars in Mexico. Ninety per cent of all the traced weapons confiscated from Mexico's drug cartels come from the US.

But Mayor Reyes told me he believes the Obama administration is sincere in wanting to help Mexico beat gun crime.

"Apart from anything else, the US is worried there could be a cross-border spill-over of the violence." he said. "Eventually we will beat the drug criminals. We have to."

But can they? It certainly will not be easy if, as it seems, some of Mexico's drug bosses are protected at the highest levels.

Drug wars

Joachin Guzman Loera, better-known as El Chapo - Shorty - is one of the world's biggest drug barons and, ostensibly, Mexico's most wanted man.

So one wonders why he feels safe enough to frequent local restaurants in his home county of Sinaloa and to stage a lavish, well-publicised ceremony in the mountains there to celebrate his marriage to an 18-year-old Mexican beauty queen.

This culture of impunity and corruption explains why I felt a sense of dread as I watched Blanca and her radiant fellow cadets shake Mayor Reyes' hand at their graduation ceremony.

It was a beautiful morning. The sun glinted off the cadets' shiny new badges. The loudspeakers blasted out a cheesy number about love for and dedication to the city of Juarez.

Afterwards, cameras clicked all around. The new recruits posed with friends and loved-ones - many laughing, many crying. I looked around to find Blanca amongst the crowd.

When I found her, I hugged her. Christian and his younger sisters were not there that day.

Their grandmother chose to keep them at home. Perhaps she felt even attending the ceremony could be risky. Probably she realised Mexico's drug wars could yet see her grandchildren orphaned.

Find out more about Blanca's story - This World: Mexico's Drug War will be broadcast on Sunday, 7 February, 2010 at 2300 GMT. Or catch-up afterwards on BBC iPlayer

How to listen to:From Our Own Correspondent

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