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When police arrive, Mexicans serve and protect themselves

Perceptions of corruption and brutality are widespread among a public wary of violence

THE residents of Mexico City's central Roma neighborhood thought they lived in a safe and attractive place. Designated a ``cultural corridor,'' the early-20th-century district was attracting new restaurants and art galleries and sprucing up its colonial-style buildings.

Then the police moved in.

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The city's judicial police, who are responsible for investigating criminal activity, came simply looking for larger offices. But Mexican police have a reputation for committing abuses, such as extortion and brutality against the public with impunity. So when they moved into Roma, the police met a barrage of resistance from residents who felt that, to save their neighborhood, they had to kick the police out.

``The police in Mexico are gangsters; they will destroy what we have going here,'' says Elvira Foucher, a housewife, poet, and longtime Roma resident who is part of a neighborhood group battling to close the police post.

Standing outside the police offices, Mrs. Foucher gestures to a sampling of her unwanted neighbors and says, ``They use their weapons to control us, not to safeguard society.''

The Roma neighborhood controversy offers a disturbing reflection of the low regard and outright fear that many Mexicans express toward the public servants who are supposed to assist and protect them in what are increasingly insecure times.

One recent survey conducted by the Mexico City daily Reforma showed that few Mexicans trust the police or believe they contribute to public security, while a Gallup poll gauging public esteem ranked the police last among major institutions.

``I used to send my children or my wife two doors down to the corner market to pick up a few things, but not any more,'' says Hector Snyder, who manages a gallery in Roma. ``With those guys around, it's just not safe.''

Few ordinary Mexicans worry about the poor pay, poor training, and dangerous working conditions that their police have traditionally encountered. Rather, they tell of widespread police extortion, robberies, and other criminal activity, and illegal detentions.

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Another Reforma poll found that 48 percent of Mexico City residents had experienced some form of police extortion, while 59 percent of crime victims said they had chosen not to report the crime to police.

Last month, in what was dubbed Mexico City's Rodney King case, a businessman and father who stepped around the corner from a taco stand to urinate was stopped by up to 16 police, including superior officers, according to civil rights activists, and beaten to death. Most of the suspected officers are either at large or uncharged.

``I always wanted to be a street patrolman when I got out of the Army, but I was discouraged by the things they do to people that aren't my idea of serving the public interest,'' says Alejandro, who settled for being a store security guard instead.

Partners in crime?

For many Mexicans, the country's poorly operating judicial system and the front-line role the police play in it together make up perhaps the No. 1 issue the country faces. Mexico City alone has 15,000 unserved arrest warrants. If so many criminals go unpunished, many assume, it is because the police are working with them.

Some observers say the violence that has rocked Mexico's political elite this year - most recently with September's assassination of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party's secretary-general - is only an extreme example of the violence ordinary Mexicans face, sometimes from the law-enforcement establishment itself.

In Roma, residents threatened by police for participating in rallies opposing the new police offices say they are not surprised when high-profile crimes go unsolved. ``Often the perpetrators have friends in high places and they go unpunished,'' says one Roma resident, ``so what is our hope of justice at our level?''

Corruption and criminal impunity are top public concerns because they ``destroy faith in access to justice and ultimately in our whole system,'' says Amalia Garcia, president of the public security commission of the Mexico City Federal District's Assembly of Representatives. ``What has to change in the police is practically everything.''

Even president-elect Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon says reform of the country's judicial system will be one of his first priorities when he takes office Dec. 1.

Police officials are well-aware of their profession's bad reputation, but they insist that the ``bad guys'' are a small minority spoiling the public's perception of the whole lot. ``The great majority of our people are sincere and judicious,'' says Pablo Wallentin, community services supervisor for Mexico City's attorney general's office, which oversees the Roma judicial police.

Noting Mexico City's patrol police have had three chiefs in the past six years, and the judicial police four, Fernando Ramirez de Aguilar, assistant director of information for Mexico City's patrol police, admits corruption ``involving drug traffickers or organized crime has sometimes reached up to the top.''

Corruption in all corners

Recent investigations have shown just how permeating the corruption is, Ms. Garcia says. ``Everyone knows about the mordida [bribe], but what I've learned about is the entre,'' a ``tribute'' that an officer must pay to superiors to keep patrol-car assignments or other perks, she says. ``It can add up to hundreds of dollars a week, and that kind of money can only come from extortion or other illegal sources.''

Police officials and watchdog groups agree on two principal roots to the police troubles: poor pay and poor training.

``[Mexicans] want a first-world police force by paying third-world salaries,'' says Ramirez, noting that police officers here start at under $800 a month. Working conditions and benefits must improve, Garcia says, but so must education levels and training.

``When I came in [three years ago], a certain height and a few photos were about all you needed to join the police,'' she says. Now a police candidate must have a junior high school diploma - high school for judicial police - followed by six months' training that includes courses in human and civil rights. (Police in the classroom, below).

But Garcia says training for today's police work remains deficient, a criticism she says is supported by the high number of police officers killed in Mexico City. So far this year, 54 patrol officers and 14 judicial police have died on duty - shocking figures when compared with the US, where through Sept. 30 four officers had died in Los Angeles this year, and three in New York.

``Our police don't know when to shoot, when to negotiate, and when to go for cover,'' she says.

``We cannot change everything overnight, but we do hope the public will acknowledge the progress we've made and work with us to go even further,'' Mr. Wallentin says.

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