In a country where nobody trusts the police, can you make a routine cop show?
Mexican prime time is stuffed with melodrama and comedy, variety shows and even historical mini-series, but no police based novelas of any kind. But in May the Mexican incarnation finally arrived. The show, “El Equipo” (“The Team”), does not try to resolve the contradiction between what citizens here think of their police — incompetent at best, criminal collaborators at worst — and a sympathetic portrayal on screen. Instead it opts for “24”-style bluster. The show turns on the exploits of the members of an elite crime-fighting team so heroic that its members don’t even need last names.
"What do you think about before you go on a raid?" the slim, beautiful wife asks the handsome Mexican federal police officer after he's just busted 23 tons of cocaine. "That they don't kill me," the dashing federal replies as emotional music kicks in. "That I don't kill someone who doesn't deserve to die. And lately, that nothing happens to you." The couple embraces and stare love-locked into each other's eyes.
The show showers the usual touches of Mexico's wildly successful soaps, or telenovelas, which are popular from Argentina to Azerbaijan. Sexily dressed women court macho men. The narcos are nacos (uncouth), fat, ugly and badly dressed.
Produced by the world's largest Spanish-language broadcaster, Mexico City–based Televisa, Mexico's new prime-time soap opera, El Equipo which portrays courageous federales dodging bullets, buzzing around in helicopters and outwitting evil drug traffickers.
Its makers say it's right to paint Mexico's federal police as heroes risking their lives fighting vicious narcos who are armed with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and, most recently, homemade tanks. If the U.S. can glorify its police — think of cop dramas from The F.B.I. to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation — then why, they ask, can't Mexico burnish the image of its officers, who are often depicted as paunchy, gold-chained bribe takers if not as outright moonlighters for drug cartels?
In spite of Mexican President Felipe Calderón's laudable efforts to clean up the constabulary, many federales continue to be accused of working with drug traffickers, extorting businesses and killing civilians during his nearly four-year antinarco offensive. Last year 465 officers were arrested for corruption, including four high-ranking commanders in the violent border city of Juárez. "The public just does not buy this bread and circus," Congresswoman Leticia Quezada of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution says of El Equipo. "You cannot wash an image of bad police with a telenovela.
To be fair, Mexico's federales, many of whom have been killed in the legitimate line of duty, do have a cleaner, more professional reputation than the country's hopelessly criminal state and local cops. But that's a relative compliment — which is why El Equipo's detractors call it disingenuous if not laughable to present the federal police in such a flattering light.
But as soon as the series began it collided with the real-life politics of Mexico’s fight against drug traffickers. One of the centerpieces of Calderón’s strategy against organized crime is the creation of an effective national police to take over from the military. The man in charge of building the federal police, Genaro García Luna, the secretary of public security, has become a polarizing figure in the drug war as the death toll mounts and violence spreads to states that were formerly peaceful.
The Mexican press immediately branded “El Equipo” an infomercial for the federal police, which gave Televisa extensive access to its facilities as it was filmed. Legislators in Congress demanded that Mr. García Luna give an accounting of how much police money was spent to support the filming and how many hours real officers spent working as extras.
But soon it would be learned that El Equipo is a media production made possible through funds from the pockets of Mexicans.
The creation of the television series "El Equipo" cost the Public Security Secretariat (SSP) federal police 118,116,880 pesos (or roughly $10,052,243 USD) for 13 series, according to the contract signed between the federal police and Televisa. The Federal Police secretary Garcia Luna had been gathering the resources since 2010.
Mr. García Luna does enjoy the theatrical side of his job. In one famous case in 2005, when he was the federal police chief, he admitted to staging the arrest of an alleged kidnapping ring so morning news broadcasts could show a “live” police action. In security circles it was an open secret that Mr. García Luna wanted to see a police show on television modeled after a long-running series in Spain, “El Comisario” (“The Commissioner”).
“In principle there is no problem with an institution promoting itself,” said Ernesto López Portillo, one of Mexico’s leading experts on police reform. “But the image and the reality don’t coincide.”
“I think it’s an excess,” he continued, contrasting “El Equipo” with the HBO series “The Wire,” which acknowledged the shortcomings of what the police can do. “It’s an abuse of the resources that television gives you to construct an image. Nobody believed the program.” How could they? “El Equipo” investigators spend a lot of time sneaking into drug lords’ houses disguised as delivery men or waiting tables in cafes where sex traffickers discuss business. Some critics found the officers’ behavior so foolhardy that the program ended up blackening the reputation of the federal police instead of polishing it.
The majority of real cases are solved with information from the public, Mr. López Portillo said, explaining that unless people trust the police, they won’t report suspicious activity. “The most advanced police forces try to win people’s confidence,” he said. On the television show, “if they don’t appear talking to people, it’s a complete fantasy.”
Several telenovelas feature criminal protagonists, including the hit La Reina del Sur, which follows a beautiful trafficking queen. El Equipo's producers say they're trying to show a jaded Mexican public that police should be looked up to instead. Officers "are not only people who serve the community," El Equipo actor Alfonso Herrera said. "They also have families and personal problems. It shows this human side."
Those sides of Mexico's police should of course be appreciated. But until the all too prevalent dark side is reformed, it will take much more than a telenovela to convince Mexicans that their cops are the good guys.