Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Calderon’s Turn at Police Reform

by Shannon K. O'Neil
November 21, 2008

Since Calderon took office nearly 2 years ago, crime has increased at an alarming rate. Spilling beyond border drug violence, assaults, shootouts and kidnappings frighten citizens across the country. Perceived widespread corruption in the ranks of public security forces heightens the unease. In the wake of a particularly high profile and gruesome kidnapping/killing, Mexico’s civil society marched on mass in August 2008, demanding change. In response, local and national governments signed a pact-the “Acuerdo Nacional por la Seguridad, la Justicia y la Legalidad”-to improve Mexico’s public security.

Based on this agreement on October 22, 2008, President Calderon sent two reforms to Congress to overhaul Mexico’s federal police system, combining existing forces and redrawing responsibilities. Mexico’s federal police is currently composed of two separate federal forces: the Agencia Federal de Investigacion (AFI) and the Policia Federal Preventiva (PFP). Although on the operational side both forces report to the Ministry of Public Security (SSP), on administrative issues the AFI is linked to the Attorney General’s office, the PGR. Reforming two already-existing laws, the Federal Police Law and the Federal Attorney General Office’s (Procuraduria General de la Republica, PGR) Law, the new bills would merge these two police forces into one single branch under the SSP. This should, according to the Calderon administration, clarify the different roles of the SSP and the PGR and as a result strengthen their mandates. The executive argues that the new centralized police force will make the federal police more efficient, more effective, and less corrupt.

If congress approves the reforms, the first one would transform the PFP into an autonomous new Federal Police. The second reform would reorganize the PGR and change the process of selection and training of its officials in the effort to improve its performance. In this process, the AFI would disappear. Its officers could join the new Federal Police police force, but only after they prove- by undergoing an invigorated evaluation and certification process- that they are qualified (i.e. not corrupt among other skills).

It is good to see the Mexican government taking on these serious challenges, but it is not all that clear that the reforms will improve the situation. Given that today’s PFP suffers from corruption, it is unclear how the consolidation of authority and renaming of its force will clean up the system. Mexico’s past two Presidents also revamped the federal police with great fanfare, but with few material results. The infiltration by drug traffickers into the most elite forces combating organized crime, as was revealed last month, is just the most recent reminder that Mexico’s police forces do not have adequate measures in place to stem corruption. The proposed laws don’t look to change this situation.

Furthermore, while the new police force’s greater autonomy could increase efficiency, it will also reduce its interaction with the PGR. Whether the reforms then boost the new police’s ability to investigate and procure evidence on crime is a question.

Lastly, corruption is not exclusive to the federal police forces. State and local police forces, as well as the army and other government agencies (which are now all involved in the battle against organized crime) are all contaminated with corruption. The federal police accounts for less than 5 percent of Mexico’s total police presence. Therefore, although at this point almost any change is welcome, the Mexican government must address the dire situation of local police forces. It also needs to tackle the impunity (due to malfunctioning court systems) that allows corruption to flourish. Though seemingly insurmountable, cleaning up all these links in the “rule of law” chain are necessary to turn back the tide of organized crime, and better the lives of ordinary Mexican citizens.

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