Mexico’s police overhaul may not curtail violence, corruption

President Peña Nieto’s™ proposal to dismantle country’s municipal forces ignores state and federal collusion

State police officers patrol the port city of Veracruz, Mexico, Dec. 8, 2014. President Enrique Peña Nieto has proposed dismantling municipal police forces and replacing them with 32 state police corps.
Alfredo Estrella / AFP / Getty Images

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has a launched a proposal to overhaul the police force in Mexico, finally acting in response to the thousands of marchers protesting the deteriorated security system and disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero.

The proposal, which Peña Nieto introduced to Congress on Dec. 2, would radically reshape the structure of policing in Mexico, dismantling municipal police forces and replacing them with 32 state police corps. It’s a move designed to show action against corruption on the local level — tragically illustrated by the Iguala police officers who dutifully handed over the students to organized crime at the command of the mayor.

The plan, however, point blank ignores state and federal collusion, despite their obvious contribution to a growing sense of lawlessness in Mexico, and the overall proposal strikes many as a hodgepodge of old ideas.

“This is an improvised and ill-prepared strategy,” said Alejandro Orozco, a Mexico City–based senior security consultant with FTI Consulting. “The way it has been planned and presented contrasts sharply with the energy reform and other sets of reforms that had been developed since the beginning of Peña Nieto’s term and had involved negotiations with the opposition [parties].”

Pena Nieto’s signature energy reform legislation, which will open up Mexico’s oil and gas reservoirs to private investment for the first time in seven decades, was a landmark achievement, the result of an agreement among the three major political parties to help reform several areas, including energy, fiscal, banking, education and telecommunications.

The current proposal, which needs to be passed by both houses of Congress and a majority of state legislatures, will dismantle more than 1,800 local police agencies throughout Mexico, a move reminiscent of a similar proposal under Felipe Calderón’s administration that was immediately voted down by Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party.

The proposal would give the federal government broad authority to take over municipal governments found corrupt. Peña Nieto, however, has delicately sidestepped any mention of his own brewing corruption scandal over favoritism to a Mexican contractor in exchange for a multimillion dollar house. The Casa Blanca scandal, the latest such evidence of political corruption, threatens to erode his authority, said Dwight Dyer, a senior Mexico City–based security analyst with Control Risks.

“Given the low credibility of federal institutions at this point, who is going to believe the arguments that they might give for an intervention?” Dyer asked.

The proposals have come after two months of near silence from Peña Nieto’s administration as huge protests over the students have roiled the country. Thousands of marchers have demonstrated repeatedly, calling for an end to both the violence and the collusion they say is rampant between politicians and organized crime. 

The new plan seems designed not only to mollify the protesters but also to address the growing attention of those considering investing in Mexico’s newly opened energy sector to the issue of security.

The financial sector’s reaction appears positive, indicating the plan could boost Mexico’s credit rating and appease investors concerned about the costs that poor security and corruption could create.

“The administration has proposed a clear strategy to fight crime at the local level,” wrote Barclay’s in a Nov. 28 financial note. “This definitely has put things on the right track and demonstrates progress on such an important pending issue.”          


‘It is built on the premise that state police forces are significantly better than municipal police departments, and I don’t think the evidence is clear on that point.’

Alejandro Hope

security analyst

But energy investors may not be looking too closely at the details of the new security plan, according to Ford Tanner, a Latin America energy analyst with IHS, an international consulting firm. Instead, their focus is more immediately fixed on the financial terms and rules for Mexico first oil and gas auction in mid-2015. These terms, which were released Thursday, will determine whether investment in Mexico makes financial sense for companies — at which point, security and other concerns will begin to be assessed.

Just how much security issues could increase costs for energy companies is still unknown, and their reaction to the proposal will depend largely on its ability to deliver results, according to David Enriquez, a Mexican energy attorney with Goodrich and Riquelme, an international law practice.

“They like the broad political message of collaboration between the federal government and states in terms of security,” he said. “But they need more specifics on what Pena Nieto’s security improvements would look like. I don’t think the market has properly internalized the details.”

Meanwhile, civil society groups decry other measures included in the proposal to introduce justice reforms, saying the country would be much better served if the government would focus on implementing justice reform measures from 2008.

On the federal level, the 2008 reforms are only halfway through their planned transition phase, with a great deal of work to be done. More work also remains on the state level, where reforms have been fully implemented in only four states, partly implemented in 20 and largely ignored in the remaining states, including Guerrero and others with terrible security and justice records.

Rather than building on the 2008 reforms, Peña Nieto’s proposal neglects their key changes, such as providing for prosecutors the resources to investigate and prosecute crimes and giving attorneys general much-needed independence to go after corruption without political interference. These improvements have been stalled by a lack of political will, as the thought of independent corruption investigations fails to inspire the needed enthusiasm. Only about 6 percent of reported crimes are investigated, and only a sliver of those end up before a judge.

The plan’s highly centralized approach also overlooks the key role the business community and local civil societies played in Monterrey, Juarez and Tijuana, working together with the police and government to reduce violence.

“It was the cooperation and coordination between all these groups [in Tijuana] that has made a lasting improvement, not an order from the federal government,” said Vicente Sanchez Munguia, a Tijuana-based professor of public administration at the College of the Northern Border.

And the proposal to dismantle the municipal police could generate as many problems as it solves, increasing the power of state police despite corruption issues that echo those of municipal officers.

“It is built on the premise that state police forces are significantly better than municipal police departments, and I don’t think the evidence is clear on that point,” said Alejandro Hope, a Mexico City–based security analyst, noting that a higher percentage of state officers than municipal officers have failed recent vetting processes in many states, including Puebla and Tabasco. In some cases, the local police are reining in abuses by state police. In early December, for example, three state officers from the state of Mexico were arrested by municipal police for kidnapping.

The proposal is being debated in Congress, and a vote has been promised by Dec. 15, but many, including the right-leaning National Action Party, have responded skeptically, as they and others question its ability to change the security landscape.

“The institutions will have a different name, but the behavior inside them will be the same,” said Carlos de la Rosa, a researcher with the Research Center for Development, a Mexican think tank.

While the proposal may bolster Peña Nieto’s reputation internationally, it’s Mexicans who would endure its consequences.

“More than 100,000 are dead or disappeared so far, and in looking for these 43 people, they found six more graves. That is the tragedy,” said Miguel Tinker Sales, a Latin American history professor at Pomona College. “The federal government knows all this, and yet what they offer up is window dressing to appease the international crowd.”

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