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Mexico's Efforts to Tackle Police Corruption Keep Failing

A government police reform proposed in the wake of police involvement in the disappearance of 43 students in 2014 seeks to eliminate municipal forces, but the problem of extreme corruption goes much deeper.
Imagen via EPA

After being kidnapped by municipal police officers in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, Liliana and three male colleagues were stripped naked and tortured for three hours. Then they were driven to secluded woodland.

"We really thought we were going to be killed," said the mother of two, who requested her real name not be published for fear of reprisals. "Before we were led to the truck, a guy stood over us and kept asking: 'How do you want to go?'"


As legislators debate a major reform of the Mexican law enforcement system, Liliana's case, and many others like it, highlight the extraordinary levels of corruption and lack of accountability within the country's police forces.

The fact that Liliana and her fellow victims were also members of the country's elite federal police force when they were abducted two and a half years ago underlines how serious the problem is. That the team was investigating a wave of disappearances when it was targeted, drives home the point.

The issue of police working directly with local drug cartels is not new in Mexico, but the pressure to do more about it rose after municipal agents in the city of Iguala, Guerrero, attacked and then abducted 43 students in September 2014. The wave of national and international outrage that followed prompted President Enrique Peña Nieto to promise major reform.

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Three months after the students were disappeared, the government proposed replacing the 1,800 municipal police forces with a single force for each of the country's 32 states — a system dubbed mando único, or single command. After over a year of being bogged down in political wrangling, the government is now pressuring lawmakers to finally get the debate going.

"We are convinced that the proposal made by the president for a single command is the solution to the impossible situation faced by many municipalities," Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong said in January.


At one level, the new model appears tailor-made to address the deep corrosion of municipal police forces laid bare by the disappearance of the students, as well as the chilling fact that local police abducted Liliana and her colleagues when they were on a mission to investigate a wave of kidnappings in a city close to the US border.

'Sometimes we fear local police more than we fear the cartels.'

When the team drove into town, in plain clothes and traveling in an unmarked vehicle, local police working for the notorious Zetas drug cartel stopped the car and quickly identified the occupants as federal agents. Liliana and her team exchanged pleasantries with the officials and were allowed to proceed. Minutes later, however, upon stopping at a gas station, a black SUV pulled up alongside them. Several masked men jumped out wielding AK-47s and AR-15s.

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"We were armed, but there was nothing we could do," Liliana explained. "They were very professional, and they had us surrounded."

The four officers were subsequently taken to the municipal police headquarters where they were beaten and interrogated. "They wanted to know what we were doing in the city, who our boss was, and why he sent us," Liliana said. "We'd been warned beforehand that the police were heavily involved with the cartel, so we lied and told them we were investigating a child pornography case."


Liliana believes that the municipal police they encountered upon entering the city were halcones, or "hawks," paid by the Zetas to warn them of rival gang members or federal officials making their way into town.

Following the interrogation, the four victims were piled into a van and driven to the countryside outside the city. Abandoned in woodland, their captors seemed to hesitate, walking away from the scene, before turning and opening fire. One federal agent was killed; another incapacitated. Liliana and the third officer were able to reach a nearby highway and get to safety.

"When [federal] agents go to these places, they have no idea who they can trust," she said. "Sometimes, we fear the local police more than we fear the cartels."

Despite attempts by consecutive governments to vet recruits, according to a national victims' survey by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, 63 percent of Mexicans have little or no trust in their municipal police force while 66 percent view them as corrupt. But the recent focus on examples of collusion with drug cartels involving municipal police ignores just how bad things can also be at the other administrative levels as well.

For one thing it is clear that the public does not view state or federal forces as an answer to their problems. Around 56 percent of the population have little or no trust in their state police force. The figure is 42 percent for the federal agency.


"The problems are seen to varying degrees across all three levels of law enforcement, but particularly at the municipal level," Raúl Benítez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, told VICE News. "In the worst cases, we see officers recruited by criminal organizations or actively participating in crimes themselves."

The force charged with keeping the peace in the southern state of Veracruz, is just one state law enforcement institution that hardly seems up to the task of supplanting for corrupt municipal forces.

Last week independent forensic experts identified the remains of one of five young people who disappeared after being arrested by state police officers at a gas station in the town of Tierra Blanca. The incident was caught by security cameras, and some of the officers allegedly involved were arrested after the case began to cause a stir in the media. One of the arrested officers told investigators that the victims were taken to a ranch and handed over to drug cartel members, who killed them.

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Meanwhile, the federal force is also beset by accusations of institutionalized corruption and human rights abuse, despite numerous expensive attempts stretching back to the late 1990s to put its professionalism, probity, and effectiveness above question, as it takes on an ever greater role in combating drug violence.


None of this stopped the director of the federal police under former president Felipe Calderón, Genaro García Luna, from being frequently singled out for alleged ties to organized crime by investigative journalists. During the current administration of President Peña Nieto, the federal police has been involved in several incidents that allegedly involved extrajudicial killings of civilians, or of gunmen who had surrendered. These include an assault on supporters of vigilante groups in the city of Apatzingán in the western state of Michoacán in January 2015, and a battle that left 42 alleged cartel members dead four months later near a town called Tanhuato, elsewhere in the same state.

For Elena Azaola, a public security specialist at the Center for Investigation and Superior Studies in Social Anthropology, the problems within Mexican law enforcement require far more than simply a change of command.

"Mexico needs a more fundamental reform than the one currently being proposed," she told VICE News. "The police need to be both professionalized and subject to oversight by civil and legislative bodies."

While there have been numerous programs in recent years to professionalize the police and vet officers for personal integrity, enthusiasm for the idea of civilian oversight, in which citizens play a role in monitoring performance, remains largely confined to the world of NGOs.

"That would be something entirely new for Mexico," Azaloa added. "But right now, in my view, there is neither the political will, nor sufficient pressure from civil society, to make it happen."


Both Azaola and Benítez nevertheless cite recent improvements among some of the country's larger municipal forces. The steep drop in homicides in the notorious border town of Ciudad Juárez, the most violent city in the world for several years running, has been at least partly attributed to a reorganized municipal agency.

'Our superiors don't want good cops, they want a police force they can control.'

As lawmakers debate the specifics of the reform, Raul Benítez believes that the likeliest outcome is a mixed model in which some states implement the single command structure, but many larger cities and municipalities retain their own forces. Though he also adds that one of the main obstacles to better law enforcement in all cases is the tendency of politicians to view police forces as primarily a means of protecting their political interests.

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"The problem is the quality of policing, not the model involved," he said.

Liliana, who continues to work for the federal police force in an administrative capacity, admitted to deep frustration with the status quo.

"The problems are institutional," she said, drawing from her own experiences. "We have more equipment, vehicles, and technology now, but agents are not trained to work as a team."

She added that the different divisions within the federal police "rarely cooperate" on cases, and said that at times political considerations block arrests. "Our superiors don't want good cops; they want a police force they can control," she said.

Liliana believes that many officers would welcome greater oversight if it meant they were able to work more safely and better serve the community, but insisted it is nearly impossible for honest individuals within the agency to do their jobs.

"People don't realize that there are many cops trying to do their best in a bad situation," she said, "but many just give up and walk away from the force."

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Follow Paul Imison on Twitter: @paulimison

This article was amended to correct a typo in a statistic. Originally, the article read "1,8000 municipal police forces."