Challenges and Opportunities to Strengthen Law Enforcement at the State and Local Level in Mexico

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On September 17, 2009 the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and the Washington Office on Latin America joined with the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center to host a discussion regarding police reform in Mexico. Researchers and public officials who have spent years exploring these issues participated in this our discussion: Edgar Mohar, former Secretary of Citizen Security of the state of Querétaro; Juan Salgado, Associate Professor at the Center for Economic Research and Education (CIDE) in Mexico City; and Daniel Sabet, Visiting Professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh of Foreign Service.

The Calderón administration has relied heavily upon the Mexican military to combat drug cartel related violence with the rationale that local police units are too corrupt and ineffective to fulfill this role.  Efforts to reform and professionalize the police have been focusing on the federal police, despite the fact that local state and municipal police forces compose 72% of Mexico’s collective law enforcement.

As noted by the speakers, the principal strategy currently used to combat drug-related violence—widespread deployment of the military—has been inappropriate and is far too blunt of an instrument for the task.  Firstly, military soldiers are not trained to handle civilian policing processes. Secondly, the military is not trained to engage in domestic law enforcement, leaving it highly prone to abusing human rights. History has shown us that the military is not a substitute for effective and transparent civilian police institutions, so focusing reform efforts on these entities is essential.

According to the panel, a lack of accountability is one of the most significant challenges facing efforts to reform civilian law enforcement in Mexico. Many state and municipal police mechanisms designed to enhance accountability are challenged by a lack of continuity. When new officials get elected and local governments turn over from one party to another, political priorities and agendas change, having major impacts on the durability of reforms and local police administration.

However, it is important to note that encouraging advancements have been made. An important trend emerging in Mexican police recruiting procedures has been the requirements on increasing education. For example, just a few years ago one could be recruited into a police force in Querétaro with only an elementary-level education. Now, high school completion with one full year of basic police academy training is required for recruitment and a University degree is required for top-rank promotions.

The municipality of Chihuahua has also undergone multiple reform initiatives, including implementation of internal affairs mechanisms and public citizen committees, to achieve Mexico’s first CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies) accreditation.  By being CALEA-accredited, the municipal police force of Chihuahua has met a long list of standards that ensure more effective training and operations for cops.

Click here to read a story in the Christian Science Monitor that further covers this topic. 

For more information, check out the full presentations here.