With just months to go in office President Felipe Calderon is redoubling his efforts to persuade the country’s state governors to quicken the pace on implementing the vetting of state police forces and improving law-enforcement training in order to meet a deadline early next year.
His cajoling of Mexico’s governors to accelerate a cleanup that the President sees as crucial for lasting police reform is meeting resistance from some governors, who argue that they don’t have the necessary resources or expertise.
According to a federal government report released in February only eight percent of state police officers had completed a vetting process. The report noted also that states collectively spend just two-thirds of their total security budget allocation.
Since that report there has been some progress. According to federal officials, just under 25 percent of state police have now been vetted. But they worry that vetting will not be completed by January 2013.
President Calderon’s latest push came at meeting in February in the state of Nuevo Leon, where he met governors drawn from the northeast of the country along with local and federal security officials. He argued that rebuilding the police and security institutions will be key in defeating organized crime.
According to Nuevo Leon state public security spokesman, Jorge Domene Zambrano, Calderon urged state officials to make greater progress on the implementation of reform. “The president emphasized the importance of lifting the pace and meeting the deadline,” he says.
President Calderon has been highly aggressive in pushing for reform of the federal, state and local police and while some progress has been made he has faced obstacles and setbacks with, among others problems, legislation becalmed in Congress.
Administration officials and police experts say the mixed record on the progress of reform reflects the difficulties in carrying out effective, lasting police change quickly on the scale Calderon wants. But supporters and critics alike acknowledge that the Calderon administration has laid down a long-term strategy for an effective policing operating within the confines of the law.
“Calderon’s government has made significant and necessary progress in the face of almost overwhelming challenges,” says Martin Edwin Andersen, an expert on Latin American policing and author of the book “The Police: Past, Present and Proposals for the Future.” But he notes there’s a long way to go. “Police forces around the country lack the professional skills needed to contain violence, collect useful intelligence and carry out meaningful investigations.”
Calderon’s reform efforts seek to address those deficiencies. But speaking at a conference at the London School of Economics last month, Mexico’s ambassador in the UK, Eduardo Medina Mora, warned that police reform would take longer than a presidency.
“It will take a generation because you cannot make the changes overnight, it will take time and resources,” he said. The ambassador, a former federal Secretary of Public Safety, added that more needs to be spent on law-enforcement, noting that Mexico spends far less compared to other countries in Latin America.
Under Calderon the money spent on the military, federal, state and municipal police as well as the federal court system has doubled since 2006. But corruption, abuse and ineffectiveness still plague Mexico’s various police departments, say experts such as Andersen.
The biggest progress has been made at the federal level both in terms of numbers and quality of policing. In 2006, there were six thousand federal police officers but now there are 36,000, although Medina Mora believes that number will need to be increased to 100,000, if the size of Mexico and its population is taken into account.
At the federal level as well as the Calderon administration has been highly proactive in combating corruption and poor performance.
In September 2010, the then Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas, announced that a three-month probe had resulted in 3,200 Mexican federal police officers being fired for failing to do their work properly or being linked to corruption. Of those, 465 were charged with crimes. To help ensure dismissed officers don’t try to join state or municipal police departments, their names have been logged in a new computerized public safety database, called Platform Mexico, that can be consulted b police recruiters.
The probe was mounted to kick off new federal police standards, which took effect in May 2010. The new regimen involves officers and future recruits passing lie detector tests, completing financial disclosure statements and undergoing drug testing. The government has sought also to improve the caliber of the federal police by raising salaries and requiring recruits to have college degrees.
Marisela Morales, Mexico’s attorney general, also has kept the pressure up on her department since being appointed in April last year and has fired or investigated more than 700 employees in her short time in the job. She said in a statement in April “purging is fundamental within the Attorney General’s Office,” adding “the Mexico of today requires that those of us in public office act with total commitment and responsibility of service.”
But it has been at the state and municipal level that Calderon has found the going tougher. The President is eager to consolidate Mexico’s 2,400 municipal police departments and there 165,000 officers and to merge them with the 31 state police forces and the police department of the Federal District of Mexico.
The President and his officials argue that consolidating police at the state level will make it easier to oversee professionalization and vetting of officers as well as allowing the harmonization of standards, from operating procedures to recruitment procedures and training.
Further, consolidation would likely improve intelligence sharing.
This huge institutional reform which requires a constitutional amendment, however, has stalled in Congress. State governors support the idea of consolidation, but many mayors who would lose their police departments are opposed.
But not all. Some high-profile mayors and former mayors are supportive.
The former mayor of Ciudad Juarez, one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, has backed Calderon’s proposal, arguing that municipal police on low wages in small towns are much more vulnerable to the offer of money or lead. ”The more a police officer knows, the more he becomes known,” Jose Reyes Ferriz told the El Paso Times. “All this makes him more susceptible to criminals.”
While some state governments have been slow on implementing the vetting of state police officers, others are pushing hard on police reform. Nuevo León is starting to introduce a change as ambitious as Calderon’s.
In May last year, state Governor Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz announced the plan to fashion a new state police service called “Fuerza Civil” (Civil Force) that will replace all of Nuevo León’s 51 municipal police forces. The new planned department will have 14,000 new officers, almost double the current number of local police, who will receive twice the current salary, be eligible for bonuses and benefits such as private health care and housing in guarded communities. The new officers will be trained at police academies in Escobedo and in Guadalupe.
Over five years the new force will cost a $1 billion. Hardly surprisingly, at his February meeting in the state Calderon took the opportunity to applaud Nuevo León on the plans for the Civil Force.