A dispute between President Felipe Calderon and Mexico's governors over the pace of the vetting of state police forces reflects the nation’s difficulties in carrying out effective, lasting police reform.
Addressing the nation’s governors at a meeting of the National Public Security System, Calderon said that he “implored [them], while also offering the support of the federal government, to bring the evaluation of the middle and high commands, as well as half of the state’s operational and municipal officers, to completion by May next year at the latest.”
Calderon’s government has shown some aggressiveness in removing incompetent or dishonest officials in the security agencies at the federal level. As InSight Crime noted in August, the nation’s attorney general, Marisela Morales, has embarked on a significant housecleaning during her six months on the job. More than 1,000 employees of the PGR, the department she heads, have been either fired, arrested, or investigated during her tenure. Twenty-one of the 31 state PGR heads resigned in August to protest the mass firings.
The governors responded that the vetting process, set forth in a national security law that came into effect in 2009, is not due to be completed until 2013. Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre also objected to what he suggested were the unrealistic aims of the Calderon government. “I think that the governors would like to have police 100 percent certified," he said. “Nonetheless, our reality is otherwise, let’s not aspire to have police forces like Switzerland or such advanced countries.”
Both sides of the dispute err in their arguments. The governors, for instance, ignore the fact that they are carrying out the vetting at a snail’s pace. According to a study from the National Public Security System, released in February 2011, just 8 percent of the state police officers have passed through a vetting process, while states collectively spend just two-thirds of their total security budget allocation.
Given these statistics, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the state governments are not doing everything possible to improve the police under their control as quickly as possible. Furthermore, while the gap between the average advanced country’s police and Mexico’s is yawning, the sense of fatalism displayed by Aguirre is disheartening; revolutionizing a police system consisting of thousands of different institutions is a daunting prospect, but shouldn’t Mexico at least aspire to have world-class police forces?
Calderon’s position is motivated in part by the fact that Mexican governors typically respond to increases in violence with pleas to the federal government to deploy troops; this has been the tactic of, among others, Andres Grenier in Tabasco, and Zeferino Torreblanca in Guerrero. Stronger state police agencies would alleviate the strain on federal resources, allow them to concentrate their efforts more selectively, and could also allow the military to withdraw to a more supportive role.
Furthermore, Calderon has long sought a police reform that would consolidate the nation’s more than 2,000 municipal police departments into just 32 state bodies. Such a reform would make the integrity of the state institutions all the more important.
But Calderon’s position is also flawed. He implies that the vetting process simply needs to be brought to a finish, and then the state governments will all enjoy clean, competent police force.
Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe this. Past police purges have not served as a long-term solution to corruption in Mexican security agencies, and it is not likely that this one will be any different. Those police who remain after the vetting are not universally incorruptible; many of them have simply not been confronted with the dilemma. But if a criminal group loses all their local police protectors, logic dictates that they will seek to replace them. No matter the efficiency and thoroughness of the housecleaning, the gains will be only temporary.
Calderon’s comments reflect a linear conception of vetting, but the gangs are dynamic and adaptable, and the logic of corruption is cyclical. What is needed is not a one-off housecleaning, but rather the creation of strong, permanent anti-corruption institutions: well funded internal affairs bureaus at every level of the police, continual random drug and polygraph testing, perennial asset-monitoring, and the like.