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New Mexican Police Squad Combats Corruption as It Pursues Polluters

CARLA GUADALUPE PLATA CORREA is part of a new Mexican police squad: "The Eco Cops."

Standing next to her freshly painted green and white cruiser, she flags down cars spewing exhaust smoke. "We're pulling over about 100 cars a day," Ms. Plata Correa, a five-year veteran officer, said on a recent morning. About half the cars are found to have violations.

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Ostensibly, this is the latest element in Mexico City's crusade to clean up one of the world's worst smog centers. But the underlying reason for the new force is to combat a moral contaminant: police corruption.

"We are looking for mechanisms to stop the internal and external corruption," the new chief of the Mexico City police, Rene Monterrubio Lopez, said last month. Critics, however, say the reforms do not go far enough.

Mr. Monterrubio became the police chief Jan. 5, replacing Santiago Tapia Aceves. Mr. Tapia left under a cloud of allegations that the force was corrupt and that officers were committing violent crimes.

Monterrubio is moving quickly to remove the most obvious form of extortion, known as la mordida, the bite. Typically, drivers are stopped for real or invented traffic violations. The most common is a violation of the "Day Without a Car" program, which governs when cars can be used based on license numbers, or for lack of an inspection sticker. Under these pretexts, traffic police often extract a bribe that is a little less than the actual fine.

Now, only the Eco Cops - a squad of about 100 women, who are thought to be more honest - will be able to stop cars for pollution violations. And all motorcycle police have been restricted to the major thoroughfares to avoid more discreet attempts at extortion on side streets.

Another source of conflict and public complaints are the police tow trucks that roam the city searching for illegally parked cars. The cars are supposed to be towed to police lots, where a fine must be paid to release the car. In practice, the tow truck drivers often hooked the car up and waited until the driver came back in order to extract the mordida.

Now police tow trucks cannot impound illegally parked cars, they can only move them to a side street where they will not block traffic. Monterrubio says he plans to privatize towing operations.

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"Corruption is bilateral between police and citizens," notes Red Albert Palacios, a police spokesman. "By dropping certain functions, we're cutting at the root of temptation ... that causes this phenomenon of corruption."

Mr. Palacios says using women officers to enforce certain laws may be more effective. "Psychologically, they have an image of respect and a high index of incorruptability. This gives us a certain guarantee that we are improving the system."

Patrolwoman Plata Correa agrees. "Women tend to be more honest," she says, noting that the women's corps has not been subject to extortion from above. "The men have to pay a portion [of the mordida] to their supervisors. We don't have to make payments to anyone."

The new police chief has also announced plans to accelerate the transfer of 3,600 police officers guarding banks and currency exchange bureaus into normal police duties to increase public safety. The city's 27,000-member police force has 7,000 vacancies. Private financial institutions will now pick up the tab for a separate bank police force being formed.

Despite the changes, critics of the Mexico City police are less than satisfied with Monterrubio and his reforms.

"Monterrubio has been a member of the police brotherhood for 25 years. He was created by and is part of a corrupt system," says Amalia Dolores Garcia Medina, president of Public Security and Civil Protection Commission of the City Assembly. "Nonetheless, he's been forced by public indignation to make some changes. But it's not enough."

What irks Ms. Garcia is the lack of response to charges of police violence. The former chief met with city Assembly representatives in late December. He was given a sample list of more than 40 allegations filed against policemen in the last year - including beatings, rape, and torture - which had not been investigated. The new police chief has not reponded to the list.

"There has been no public condemnation of police impunity," Garcia says. "It's simply not enough to change the head of the force if impunity continues."

Garcia and other opposition politicians say the Mexico City political system must be reformed for citizens to gain greater leverage over the police. Currently, Mexico's president appoints both the mayor and the police chief.

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party opposes an effort underway to give more power to the Assembly and make the mayor an elected official. Garcia would also like the elected delegates of the Assembly to have control over the police patrolling their districts. The police reject this kind of decentralization as counter-productive.

Both critics and police agree that better pay, working conditions, and professionalization are necessary. The average Mexican cop makes less than $400 per month. City officials say a pay raise is being considered.

"They say we're bad cops. But compared to whom?" asks Palacios. "A San Francisco or Los Angeles policeman who makes about $20,000 or $30,000 a year, plus social security benefits, and can retire after 20 years? We have the same risks, duties, and courage of any metropolitan police force but not the same salary."

Garcia counters: "A low salary doesn't justify corruption. It's an excuse. The policewomen are paid less than the men but look at their record."

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