By Asela Viar.

Mexico's army offered members of the media a tour of its most state-of-the-art training facility, including an up-close look at an exclusive virtual simulation system that soldiers must master prior to live firearms drills.

Situated at the foot of the Iztaccihuatl Volcano in the central state of Mexico, Military Camp 37-B houses one of the country's best-equipped centers for training special forces troops in incursion techniques, hostage rescue, urban combat and other skills required to combat well-armed organized criminals.

The installations house the Virtual Training Subcenter, which was inaugurated in February and is capable of simulating as many as eight different combat environments, from rural or desert settings to the historic downtown areas of several Mexican cities.

A total of 1,132 soldiers have trained at the center over a period of six months, working with different programs to "reduce collateral damage," army Lt. Col. Hector Daniel Guzman said.

"Here our boys prepare, train. We don't have an accident rate, we don't spend ammunition and we can practice until our personnel achieve total efficiency," he told Efe Thursday during a tour of the installations organized by Mexico's defense department to mark Special Forces Day.

The Virtual Training Subcenter, the only facility of its kind in Mexico, is one of the "world's most modern" simulation systems, Guzman said, adding that it introduces "military personnel to a real-life situation within the safety of the virtual environment," as well as to combat procedures.

The soldiers, working either individually or in groups and using equipment such as ropes and rescue gear they would need in a real operation, practice marksmanship or use of night vision goggles with the aid of giant video screens.

After working with the combat simulator, the soldiers undergo training at nearby firing ranges such as La Joya, a full-scale model of a town featuring seven buildings, including several simple one-story houses, a multi-story building and several vehicles.

The exercises to be performed in this mock rural community include coping with threats from snipers, rescuing hostages or assisting civilian authorities.

Prior to each exercise, soldiers are reminded of combat procedure and of theoretical concepts such as the "graded use of force," which consists of four phases: dissuasion, persuasion, use of non-lethal force and, lastly, use of lethal force.

The instructional program imparted at La Joya consists of 16 types of training sessions and includes helicopter rappelling, terrestrial incursion simulations and hostage rescue.

"The special forces routinely tackle all the missions the army is tasked with ... in any type of environment," the lieutenant colonel said.

Soldiers must undergo two years of training and later pass exams that test their knowledge, physical fitness and resistance and trustworthiness before entering the special forces.

President Felipe Calderon gave the army the lead role in the fight against heavily armed, well-funded drug cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006 for a six-year term.

Since then, between 50,000 and 70,000 people have lost their lives in cartel turf battles and fighting between mobsters and security forces, depending on the source.

Although the military is highly regarded in Mexico, especially by comparison with the country's notoriously corrupt and underpaid state and local police forces, the recent indictment of four generals on drug-trafficking charges has cast a shadow on its reputation.

Calderon also has come under heavy criticism at home and abroad for using the military to battle drug gangs.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, for example, said in a report last year that "instead of reducing violence, Mexico's 'war on drugs' has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country."

EFE