Mexico and the United States have opened a specialized police academy in the central Mexican state of Puebla as part of the Merida Initiative, a U.S.-funded regional plan to battle drug cartels and other transnational criminal networks.

The Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza National Police Training and Development Academy, built at a cost of $5 million, will put all levels of Mexican law enforcement at the vanguard of the fight against organized crime, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Anthony Wayne said at Friday's inauguration.

During the ceremony, also attended by Mexican President Felipe Calderón, the ambassador said the academy's graduates will be prepared to face the big public safety and organized crime problems "that pose challenges not only to Mexico but the entire world."

Organized crime is a global problem that cannot be confronted with the resources of a single country, Wayne said, adding that the solution lies in a joint struggle within mechanisms such as the Merida Initiative.

The academy is equipped with high technology, including a virtual simulator that will allow cadets to "gain practice in police investigation and tactical operations," Calderón said.

The president added that Mexico has received roughly $1 billion in crime-fighting aid under the Merida Initiative.

In February, as part of that same package, the United States delivered an $18 million technology platform aimed at helping federal, state and local centers across Mexico fight drug addiction.

Under the Merida Initiative, launched in 2008, the United States is committed to providing $1.6 billion in drug-war assistance to Mexico and neighboring countries in Central America.

The police academy has opened at a time when many in Mexico and other parts of the region are calling for new strategies for tackling drug-related violence.

Drug-war critics note that conflict among rival cartels and between criminals and the security forces has claimed some 50,000 lives in Mexico since December 2006, when Calderón took office and began deploying tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police nationwide.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a retired military officer, was the most outspoken in calling for innovative solutions and a debate on drug legalization during last month's Summit of the Americas.

This week, Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, also said the avenue of legalization should be explored and termed the global war on drugs begun during U.S. President Richard Nixon's 1969-1974 administration an "absolute failure."

During an hour-long question-and-answer session Wednesday in Mexico City with about a score of foreign correspondents, he cited figures showing that the drug-related murder toll has risen steadily throughout Calderón's five-and-a-half-year military offensive against the well-funded drug mobs.

Fox said, for example, that about 2,760 drug-related homicides were committed in the country in 2006, the year he left office, and 0.4 percent of the Mexican population were cocaine users.

A few years into the military strategy, according to his figures, the 2011 drug-related murder toll came in at 16,603 and 2.4 percent of the population consumed cocaine.

"We're fighting this war for (the United States)," the ex-president, a member of Calderón's National Action Party, or PAN, said.

The 69-year-old former head of state upheld Portugal as an example of the merits of legalization, saying that since that country decriminalized personal possession of drugs in 1999 consumption there has fallen by 25 percent.

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