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Law and Order, here and there

1 December 2008

If there is anything worse than a corrupt and poorly-equipped police corps, it’s a corrupt and well-equipped police corps.

(Economist and academic Jorge Chabat, in The News)

With the Calderon Administration’s “war on drugs” losing support because of the appalling number of violent deaths that receive national exposure (unlike, say, in the United States, where there may be an even higher death toll related to narcotics, though murders among users, AIDS, auto and industrial accidents, suicides, child abuse, etc. are of local interest at best), the latest rationale is the lack of a coordinated police force in this country.

The alarmist headlines being sent out in the U.S. mention that somewhere around half of Mexican cops are below standard… but that is based on a national standard.  Like the United States, police forces exist at different government levels — Federal, State, Municipal — but, unlike the United States, are not always the highest priority within a governmental body when it comes to financing.  Foreign writers often jump to conclusions when the read about some police force “riddled with corruption” or overwhelmed by gangsters, not realizing they’re referring to some dirt-poor rural community where the local council is wrangling with the power company to keep the lights on at the municipal building, and the police car is likely to be an old volkswagen.  The police are lucky to have an army surplus rifle or two, and the cops are usually the kinds of guys who find in any small town bureaucracy… some dork put on the public payroll because his uncle was on the council and owed his mom a favor.

Secondly, policing is not a glamor trade in Mexico — you don’t find cop shows on Mexican TV, except for foreign imports like “El ley y la orden” — nor are policemen considered more than a necessary nuisance.  This has little to do with “corruption” and everything to do with history.  Going back to colonial times, police were expected to protect the rich against the people.  Los Rurales — the first federal police force — was supposed to guard against bandity, but was used to put down strikes, and keep the peons in line.  The complaints agains the Lopez Obrador administration in the Federal District began when the administration started forcing the banks to pay their fair share for police protection (the District provided “Bank and Industrial Police” but insisted the banks pay for upgrading their own facilities to meet codes borrowed from European and U.S. municipal regulations).   The attacks intensified when the administration attempted to upgrade police forces, moving resources from wealthy areas (where the police were often seen as private security forces) to high crime neighborhoods.

Mexico City has made some progress, just by increasing the educational and physical requirements for the job and by putting more money into training.  That takes political change at all governmental levels, but is not un-doable.  Assuming the Federal government is willing to stint other priorities (like education and health care), I suppose the money could be found to allow municipalities and rural communities to hire better educated and qualified cops.  Getting the officers off the forces would be a challenge (Mexico’s labor laws are designed to protect workers, not bosses), they could be transfered to duties that caused no harm — too many school crossing guards or cops whose entire job was to help little old ladies cross the street isn’t the worst thing in the world.

The arguments for a unitary national police are also based on the fragmented nature of policing in this country.  Like the United States, Mexican governments are balanced between executive, judicial and legistaltive branches.  Different police departments answer to different branches of government, and were intended to handle different functions.  Crime investigation and crime prevention are often handled by completely separate departments, as are things like traffic control or providing security at banks and department stores.

Rudolf Giuliani came to grief here when he gave the impression — or didn’t correct U.S. news stories — that said he was “reforming Mexico City’s police department.” Giuliani never seemed to understand that he was dealing with several different police departments, all of which — like any other bureaucracy at any time in history — jealously guard their budget and perogatives.  However, his recommendations for a unitary police force (in the Federal District) started to bear fruit with Unipol… a carefully worked out agreement to share police resources among the different departments, under a unitary command and control.  Following a horrendous disaster (the nightclub raid on underage drinkers that resulted in a stampede and several deaths). there was a backlash by the voters against the idea, and it was unceremoniously scrapped.

It’s still a good idea, but needs to be rethought.  David Agren, as usual doing a bang-up job at The (Mexico City) News lays out the Administrations’ arguments for policing to be under federal control:

We’re a country with a large number of police forces, but without a law that can handle all of the coordination. Presently, this is all done through agreements.

There [often] aren’t agreements between municipalities, [or] between states. If one municipality is pursuing a criminal, they have to go and strike a deal with another municipality…

For operations and control. Often one police force has one radio frequency, another force another. One has general criteria for taking action, another [force has] other [criteria]. There are different manuals, different processes and methods. Maintaining a single front against organized crime is fundamental. You can’t have a police [force] focused on customs, that can’t pass information on to the federal highway police.

He reports, the Chamber of Deputies decides. But, I have to say, this doesn’t seem to require putting the police under Federal command and control, any more than, say the Brewster County Texas Sheriff’s Department needs to be directed by the FBI. The parties of the left, including the PRI, are opposed for reasons that make perfect sense. Of course, PAN deputy Edgar Olivara, whom Agren quotes, minimizes the opposition objections:

For the left, giving more force to authorities is a non-negotiable issue because they have been persecuted [in the past].

Second, the amount of money [is an issue]. The state governors – the majority are PRI – want to receive the money.

Well, yeah… national standards (for things like education or physical condition or proficiency with firearms) shouldn’t mean putting the local copper under Presidential control. And, if financial control is the issue, most state and municipal funding already comes from the federal government, and the argument that some states have opposition party leaders is anti-democratic. It’s like saying that because Sheriff Dodson in Brewster County is a Democratic Party member, and the Governor of Texas is a Republican, and the next President of the United States is a Democrat, that the sheriff needs the FBI to control his deputies. Besides, can some bureaucrat in Washington even find Paisano Pass on a map?

Certainly, a better command and control structure — and maybe unified radio frequencies — will improve security, but the suggested “reforms” seem unnecessary and dangerous to democracy. Giving municipalities the funding to buy new police cars, pay enough to attract healthy high school graduates, and better agreements among the various police forces don’t require turning the local crossing guards and traffic cops into Homeland Security types. Frankly, the “war on drugs” — consciously or not — is being used to concentrate power in the federal executive (much as the “Patriot Act” did in the United States) to overnight correct a perceived weakness and will create more long-range, chronic problems for democracy than it will resolve in security issues.

And, as an afterthought, I’d point out that the Mexican head of Interpol was arrested for taking bribes. It’s easier to bribe one key guy than a shitload of small town police chiefs, state police commanders and an army of Barney Fifes.

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