Mexico's youngest police chief 'flees for her life'

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Barely six months after a 20-year-old woman won the admiration of the world by becoming police chief of a small town wracked by drug violence in the north of Mexico, her post is once again being advertised following her disappearance over the weekend allegedly in fear for her life.

The whereabouts of Marisol Valles Garcia, a former criminology student who took over the police department of the town of Praxedis Guadelupe Gerrero in Chihuahua State last October, were still not known last night. Friends anonymously told news wires, however, that she was in the US seeking asylum.

Town officials publicly fired her on Monday, frustrated that the police chief had not returned from a brief leave of absence in the US and was not answering her cell phone. Praxedis Guadelupe Gerrero lies in an area of persistent violence between rival drug cartels seeking control of smuggling routes into the United States.

The vanishing and subsequent sacking of Ms Valles Garcia, who recently turned 21, is yet one more unwanted parable of surrender and disappointment for a country that has seen more than 35,000 people killed in the four years since President Felipe Calderon deployed the army to confront the drug lords.

Last week, Mr Calderon went to Washington voice the deep anger felt by many Mexicans towards their northern neighbour. The Mexican government blames America for failing to shrink demand for illicit drugs while doing little to stop the flow of weapons into Mexico from the US.

The posting of the police chief's job coincided with still more news of violence in Mexico, including the discovery of severed heads in a tunnel connecting downtown Acapulco with the suburbs and the killing of 18 people in a gun battle between rival gangs in the town of Abasolo in the northeast of the country.

Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a Mexican human rights lawyer, expressed disappointment over the firing of Ms Valles Garcia even before her whereabouts had been ascertained.

"Right now Marisol needs support and one way to be supportive is to leave her in the office. To fire her is to leave her completely alone," he said.

It is believed that she may have received threats to her life for refusing to accept bribes from and take sides with one of the warring drug cartels.

She and her young son were escorted by a friend in the middle of last week to a bridge connecting Chihuahua to Texas for what was meant to be a short visit.

When she took the post amid a blare of publicity, she professed to be unperturbed about the danger to herself.

"I've never thought about if I'm here but not tomorrow, but what I say if I'm here today then I'm gong to do what has value. I'm doing this for my people," she said at the time. But in February she told the US radio broadcaster NPR: "I'm afraid like everyone here and I take precautions."