38 Mexican police officers in the small town of General Teran, in Nuevo Leon, abandoned their posts after a series of attacks from drug cartels culminated in the beheading of two of their colleagues.
The incident underscores the pressures on, and divisions between, Mexico’s police forces. The embattled municipal and state police, ill-equipped and underpaid, often find themselves at odds with the country’s federal police, who view local police as corrupt and inefficient.
All 38 police officers charged with maintaining public order in General Teran, including the police chief, stepped down on Wednesday, capitulating to cartel intimidation. According to Mexico’s El Milenio, the walkout occurred after the discovery of the mutilated and beheaded bodies of two policemen who had been kidnapped days earlier.
The attack was the fourth strike on the police since December, following several grenade attacks and drive-by shootings of their local headquarters. The town’s mayor said that military personnel and members of the state police will step in for the local police.
This is not the first time that small-town police officers in northern Mexico have quit in response to violence. All fourteen members of the police force in Los Ramones resigned after gunmen attacked their office last October, and the town of Los Aldama saw its entire police outfit quit in April. Both towns are in the state of Nuevo Leon, a state which registered its highest highest homicide rates on record last year, mostly due to the fighting between the Gulf Cartel and its former enforcement wing, the Zetas gang. The Zetas split from the Gulf Cartel last January after Gulf members assassinated a Zeta commander, sparking a battle for control of both Nuveo Leon and its neighboring state, Tamaulipas.
Both municipal and state police in Mexico are generally paid very little, which often prompts them to supplement their income through bribery and extortion. According to a 2007 report by the anti-corruption NGO Transparencia Mexicana, 87.5 percent of Mexicans reported having bribed a public official at some point. Bribing police officers is so commonplace that Mexicans know it as the “mordita,” or “little bite,” and families routinely spend about eight percent of household income on bribes annually.
In addition to being underpaid, municipal police are under-equipped and under-trained. In some towns, local police have protested that they lack sufficient ammunition or bulletproof vests, and are thus "out-gunned" by the cartels.
For these reasons, municipal and state police are often on the payroll of drug cartels, and federal police are generally hesitant to work with them, for fear of compromising their investigations and endangering their own safety. As such, feuds between different police agencies are common, and occasionally result in violence. As the Mexican daily El Universal reports, one such incident resulted in the arrest of ten municipal police officers for allegedly killing twelve federal agents in July of 2009.
However, federal police are not immune to corruption either, and agents from all levels have been indicted for ties to drug cartels. In a record purge of the federal police force last August, President Calderon fired more than 3,200 federal police agents (almost 10 per cent of the entire federal force) after it was discovered that the officers had failed a series of performance reviews.
Ultimately, the future of police corruption lies in the ability of the government to professionalize its police force, increasing the amount of training for new police recruits and raising their pay, thereby reducing the incentive to collude with criminal organizations. Last fall the Calderon administration launched a proposal to radically centralize the nation’s police forces, dissolving the country’s 2,200 local police departments and placing them under the “unified command” of state authorities. Although the proposal has yet to be adopted by the Mexican legislature, the president says that the new approach would standardize equipment and training across the country’s local police forces. Critics of the measure, however, argue that it will do little to address the culture of police corruption, and point to the fact that state officials have less-than-impeccable records themselves.