Mexico police caught between drug crackdown, cartels
MEXICO CITY - Poorly trained, badly paid and vulnerable to corruption, Mexico's legions of local police are increasingly caught in the crossfire as the Mexican government embarks on a crackdown on drug smugglers.
Dozens of municipal police have been killed in recent months in apparent drug hits, and several others, including the intelligence chief of Mexico City's Police Department, are under investigation, suspected of links to smugglers.
Last month, the Mexican government announced it was scrutinizing police commanders nationwide, and the Mexican army said it was disarming 300 police along the Texas border while prosecutors investigated them.
"We are evaluating police chiefs of all three levels of government (federal, state and local) . . . to purge our police forces of bad elements and criminals who have infiltrated them," Mexican Public Safety Secretary Genaro García Luna said during a federal law-enforcement meeting last month.
The arrests and attacks have highlighted both the danger and temptation faced by Mexico's 317,000 local and state police officers, said Rep. Juan Francisco Rivera Bedoya, chairman of the public-safety committee in Mexico's lower house of Congress.
"The ones who are in the eye of the hurricane are the municipal police," Rivera said. "The gangs threaten to kill their children and wives if they don't cooperate. Many decide to just quit."
In January alone, at least nine city and state police officers were gunned down in apparent drug hits. An additional 11 were arrested on charges of working with drug smugglers, including one charged with battling fellow police officers during a fierce gunfight in Tijuana on Jan. 17.
The surge in cases involving local police is part of a flurry of developments in a 1-year-old government offensive against Mexico's drug cartels.
'They're all corrupt'
As Mexican troops and federal police rack up victories, the cartels are lashing out at local police who are easier targets, said Luis de la Barreda, director of the Citizens' Institute for Studies on Insecurity, a Mexico City think tank.
"The local police are very unprotected. Sometimes, they don't have adequate weapons or vehicles to confront these drug traffickers," Barreda said. "They're much more vulnerable than the federal police."
Local police in Mexico are also more susceptible to corruption because of low pay and poor morale, said Luis Villalobos García, a researcher with the Institute for Security and Democracy in Mexico City.
"The expectations that police have about their professional development are so limited, that if their family has money problems, drug-trafficking can become a very attractive way out," Villalobos said.
Among Mexicans, the recent arrests of local police have reinforced a general distrust of law enforcement.
"It doesn't surprise me at all. They're all corrupt," Hugo López Piña said as he sipped a beer outside his home in the Barrio del Niño Jesús, a working-class neighborhood about one mile from the site of the Jan. 22 raids.
A few streets over, Mexico City police Officer Aurelio Méndez watched over the neighborhood from an elevated police box.
"The sad thing is, if I were killed tonight, people would say I was involved in something (criminal) and it was a settling of accounts," Méndez said. "There's a lack of confidence that dates from long ago."
Low pay doesn't help
Police officers' low pay makes them susceptible to bribes ranging from mordidas, or "bites," paid by motorists to get out of traffic tickets to kickbacks from drug smugglers moving their cargo through town, said Adalberto Santana, a historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and author of a book about drug-smuggling in Latin America.
A police officer in the northern city of Chihuahua earns an average salary of $650 a month, according to the state government.
In Mexico City, a beat cop is paid $700 a month, the city government says.
Many officers are "auxiliary" or "bank and industrial police" whose main job is to guard high-risk private businesses. Many work exhausting 24-hour shifts, one day on, one day off.
College degrees are rarely required, and most auxiliary police get only a few weeks of academy training, Villalobos said.
Updating the system
To professionalize the police, García Luna, the federal public-safety secretary, has proposed creating a national standard for recruiting and training officers.
The United States has also pledged millions of dollars for police training as part of a proposed $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package.
Mexican lawmakers are also working on a bill to reform the court system, a bureaucracy that is so slow and secretive that many Mexicans prefer to pay bribes to avoid it. The same bill would set up a certification system to make sure police are trained in investigative measures.
The Mexico City government also has launched a new transit law allowing police to issue more traffic tickets instead of impounding cars. Avoiding the impound yard is one of the top reasons Mexicans pay bribes, according to Transparency International.
Still, Barreda said it could take years to weed out bad police officers, prepare the remaining ones to fight smugglers and improve the police's reputation among the public.
"We need a good process of selection, adequate salaries and a way to give them incentives, not just material but also spiritual: recognizing them when they are good police officers," he said.