Mexico: Challenge To Police Reform

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Mexico’s president wants to change his country’s constitution to replace local police with state police. He also wants legal authority to take over municipal governments infiltrated by organized crime.

But ongoing protests and recent polls suggest Mexicans aren’t convinced the change will make a difference.

Two officers from the Juárez Police guard a crime scene. Mexico's president has proposed putting local police under the supervision of state police. Criminologists on either side of the border say the proposal ignores the reality that some local police forces, among them Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, are today more professional than their state counterparts. (Lorne Matalon)

Two officers from the Juárez Police guard a crime scene. Mexico’s president has proposed putting local police under the supervision of state police. Criminologists on either side of the border say the proposal ignores the reality that some local police forces, among them Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, are today more professional than their state counterparts. (Lorne Matalon)

The move follows disgust in Mexico over a long delay by the federal government to investigate the murders of 43 college students.

Mexico’s Attorney General said the slaughter was committed by drug gang killers working with local police on orders from an elected mayor.

In the Chihuahua state border town of Ojinaga, local police report to the mayor as was the case in Iguala.

Ojinaga Mayor Miguel Carreon said replacing 1,800 local police chiefs in Mexico with 32 state police chiefs is a bold idea.

“There are many things that President Peña Nieto is changing in this country,” he said.

Carreon’s referring not only to police reform proposals but also to education, communications and energy reform.

Peña Nieto has arrested a corrupt teacher union boss, chipped away at telecommunications monopolies and allowed foreign companies in to help restore Mexico under-performing domestic oil and gas sector.

“Most of the time when we got big changes in the country, we get that kind of protest,” he said.

Carreon said legitimate concern over the Iguala slaughter has been hijacked by Mexicans with a host of other, he claims, unrelated concerns.

“They are using the pain of that people of Iguala,” Carreon said. “They are using what is happening in Iguala to protest.”

That statement, echoed by public figures people who are close to the Mexican president, illustrate what polls show is a disconnect between citizens and their political leaders. The notion that a mayor worked hand in glove with police and organized crime is not new in Mexico. Many here believe Iguala is one image in a tapestry of corruption.

“Things are bad,” said Dalia Morelos in Spanish at the plaza in Ojinaga.

She helped organize a candlelight vigil here that ended with university professors walking out in solidarity with protesters. That was in November and the professors have not returned.

“Plain and simple, police are corrupt,” she said in Spanish.

She said police reform won’t succeed because people have no confidence in state and federal police.

Across town, clothing manufacturer Maximo Alvarez disagrees. He said police reform may actually progress given how the Iguala murders have galvanized outrage. But first, he said politicians must pay police more than the few hundred dollars a month that most receive.

“The government must pay them more because actually corruption comes because of the low salary of the police,” Alvarez said. “The local police risk their lives as any other police but they have the lower earnings.”

Andrew Selee is a Mexico specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholar in Washington, D.C. He said political leaders have made a bad situation worse by claiming that the murders in Iguala are an aberration.

“What Iguala has reminded Mexicans is that there are some really major parts of the foundations of the rule of law in the country that are still very weak,” Selee said. “The fact that they haven’t been able to stand up and say with a single voice how horrible this is has really discredited the political class in the eyes of many Mexicans.”

Police reform is being debated in the Mexican Congress. If approved, it will mark the time in four years that Mexico has tried to streamline police command. The first attempt has been widely criticized for failing to reduce police corruption.

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