President Enrique Peña Nieto appears to be dialing back the Mexican government’s years-long attempt to forge the creation of unified police commands in all 32 states, a model seen by some as the best way to improve the ability of the security forces to take on organized crime.

Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said at a regional security conference with governors this week that the new administration wants the creation of unified forces to “be based on collaboration, that everyone is in agreement.”

The unified commands, which place most municipal police under the direction of state officials, was a uncompleted pillar of the security reforms attempted by President Felipe Calderon, who left office five months ago.

While adopted in a few states, and in parts of others, the model has faced stubborn resistance from many of Mexico’s 2,400 mayors, who fear losing control of their police as well as the security budget underwritten by the federal government.

“Mexico’s reality is very complex,” said Alejandro Espriu, an analyst at Fundacion Incyde, a Mexico City think tank focused on police reform and other public security issues. “A single model can’t really work in every case. There isn’t any necessity to force people to do this.”

Osorio made it clear this week that the Peña Nieto administration wants to leave it up to the mayors and governors to work out.

“We don’t want to force things, which was the earlier failure,” Osorio said. “They wanted to impose upon the municipalities, also upon the states.” 

Among the handful of Mexico’s 32 states that already have adopted some form of unified command is Nuevo Leon, which borders Texas and girds Mexico’s export-led economic growth. The state’s population of four million people is heavily concentrated in metropolitan Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city and its industrial powerhouse.

Gangland violence exploded in Monterrey three years ago thanks to the split between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, quickly overwhelming the capacity of local and state police to deal with it.

[See InSight Crime’s three-part special about the Zetas and the battle for Monterrey].

“When the problem got bad between the criminal groups and we started to combat it, we discovered that the police were not up to the task and on the contrary were cooperating with the criminals,” Nuevo Leon Governor Rodrigo Medina said in a meeting with Insight Crime and other foreign media this week.

In response, Medina’s government fired 4,200 police officers statewide, replacing them with a new civil force staffed with officers contracted after a rigorous vetting system. Among the requirements for the new officers is that they’ve never served on a police force before. Only seven percent of applicants survived a vetting process polygraph exams and background check.

“It’s a very intense process,” Medina said. So far 3,200 new officers have been hired, Medina said, with another 2,000 new recruits being hired each year, about 80 new officers a week.

But Medina said the effort has paid off, with some types of crime dropping sharply. Car thefts, which became a plague in recent years in Metropolitan Monterrey, have been reduced by 70 percent, according to state statistics. Statistics also show that gangland style killings declined by 30 percent between 2011 and last year. They dropped an additional 50 percent between the first quarter of 2012 to the first three months of 2013.

InSight Crime Analysis 

The Peña Nieto administration’s desire to forge consensus in creating the unified commands reflects the reality of a politically diverse Mexico, in which the presidency holds fewer levers of power. Without constitutional changes to provide federal funding for unified forces — difficult to pass in a Congress dominated by Peña Nieto’s opponents — these forces have had to be jerry-rigged in the states where they’ve been adopted.

But Osorio’s comments this week almost certainly imply that the creation of the unified command will move forward even more slowly than before.

Nuevo Leon is among Mexico’s richest states. Medina and the state’s mayors adopted the Civil Force under severe pressure from the gangland violence as well as Monterrey’s powerful business elite. Although he belongs to Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Medina became one of Mexico’s governors most closely allied with Calderon’s military-led anti-crime offensive.

“Security costs a lot but insecurity costs even more,” said Medina, who estimated that creation of the unified police took up more than half his time in the past two years. “To achieve this requires political will.”

“Unfortunately we have seen statements from other places that ‘this is not my problem, this is the problem of the federal government.’ We never said that. We said this is our problem, and we are going to deal with it as if the federal government doesn’t exist.”

But such consensus remains hard to come by in Mexico, even as national political leaders continue to support the Pact for Mexico that has enabled Congressional approval of economic and labor reforms.

Mayors and governors have very distinct priorities than Mexico City and police reform costs a lot of money. Gang bosses, who often wield de facto control in many regions and states, can’t be expected to support improving the police.

As prominent journalist Carlos Puig wrote on his blog this week, Calderon’s attempt to force through the creation of unified police forces might have sealed the project’s slow progress to date. But “neither is it clear that appealing to good will have a real impact in the quality of our police or in what results these forces of order deliver to citizens.”

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