by Lourdes Cardenas for the El Paso Times and Danica Coto A.P.
Mexican President Felipe Calderón has the support of most of the state governors to replace local police departments with unified state police forces so the government can better fight unrelenting drug violence that has claimed nearly 23,000 lives since he took office in 2006.
On Thursday, Calderón announced that he is ready to introduce a Constitutional reform bill that would create 32 state police forces, each one operating under a unified command. Pending a cost analysis, Calderon intends to present it to Congress when it resumes session in September.
According to Mr. Calderon, unified state police forces would allow the government to have a better knowledge and control of the police, create mechanisms to carry out routine examinations to officers and providing more effective training and coordination to fight against organized crime.
So far, the military and federal police have led the war against drug cartels launched shortly after Calderon took office in December 2006.
"We want a safe Mexico in which there is no room for the fear, violence and impunity that we suffer today," Calderon said.
The idea makes sense. Currently, Mexico has more than 2,400 municipal police forces, which are not necessarily coordinated or integrated into a state or national body. In many of these little police departments, the agents receive no training or equipment enough to do their job.
The mayor of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's deadliest city with 2,601 drug-related killings reported last year, backed Calderon's proposal and said municipal police are often easy prey in small, close-knit towns.
"The more (a police officer) knows, the more he becomes known," Jose Reyes Ferriz said. "All this makes him more vulnerable to criminals."
Teresa Incháustegui, a federal legislator from the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) has said that only five percent of the law enforcement officers in the country meet the minimum requirements -in terms of training and equipment- to face organized crime.
The majority of those municipal police officers receive a monthly salary of less than $300, according to Public Safety Secretary, Genaro García Luna. In some areas of the country, their salary is even less than $100 per month. Poorly paid officers are an easy prey for corruption, García admitted in a meeting with federal legislators in the beginning of the year.
Part of the goal is to root out corruption by replacing these generally low-paid, poorly educated local police, who are seen as more susceptible to bribery and intimidation by the powerful cartels.
In Calderon’s view, a unified police would help to solve many of the problems that municipal and state police forces face every day. But most important, it would facilitate coordination in the areas of intelligence, investigation and crime prevention.
The government is also proposing to create a national crime database that would include information on kidnappings, stolen cars and prisoners. A separate database would contain photos of all police officers, their fingerprints and other identifying details.
It does sound good in paper. The problem, however, is in the many questions on implementation of the proposal.
What is to become of the more than 400,000 current municipal police officers? Are they going to be integrated into the state police forces? How are they going to clean up the current state police forces? Are better salaries and working conditions enough to deter corruption? How can they guarantee that the high state commands won’t be corrupted? How long will it take –if it happens– to restore the public’s confidence in the police corps? How will the government guarantee the police’s forces accountability?
Let’s not be pessimistic. Let’s think that these reforms could be a good beginning, but if we are realistic, to have a reliable and capable Mexican police force could take more than one generation to happen. Maybe the children of our children shall be the one to see the results.