The beleaguered Mexican city of Veracruz is trying to fight corruption by purging its police force -- dismissing all 800 officers. But firing dodgy police could have its own dangers, encouraging them to join criminal gangs.
Veracruz has seen its situation deteriorate in the last few months, with dozens of bodies dumped en masse on the highways, and some stored in houses around the city, as other criminal groups continue to battle the Zetas for control. In October, the government sent federal forces to try to control the situation, and fired some 980 Veracruz state police.
This week, Veracruz went a step further and fired its entire municipal police force, consisting of some 800 officers and 300 administrative staff, according to officials who said that the force had been infiltrated by the Zetas. Until replacements are found, marines will patrol the streets and take charge of public security in the port city.
Veracruz’s massive purge is a more extreme version of a strategy used widely across Mexico, as part of President Felipe Calderon’s aggressive push against organized crime. Rooting out criminal collaborators among the police is a centerpiece of his policy. Violence-ridden Nuevo Leon state has seen some of the biggest cleanups, eliminating more than half of its 2,200 state police officers since 2009. Cities like Tijuana, Juarez, and Torreon have also seen their police corps dismissed en masse.
Federal forces have also been hit, with the firing of 10 percent of the entire federal force in the first eight months of 2010. In November, Attorney General Marisela Morales said that 1,500 officers would be fired from the Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI) by the end of 2011, with 900 gone already, after failing tests designed to detect corruption and incompetence.
Other countries in the region are pursuing the same tactic, with El Salvador’s leader Mauricio Funes declaring a campaign against corrupt police earlier this year, and some 1,600 investigations currently in progress in the country.
However, amid all this work to clean up police, the mass firings could have dangerous side effects. The Zetas -- the very gang who supposedly controls the police force -- was founded by members of the Mexican special forces who swapped sides. While the dismissed municipal officers are likely far from elite troops, they could be easy recruits for the group, which is likely in need of new footsoldiers. If the Veracruzian authorities are right, and a large number of the dismissed are already in the pay of the Zetas, what could be simpler than for a newly unemployed officer, with a little weapons training and a grudge against the authorities, than to join a powerful gang which he already has contacts with?
As Samuel Gonzalez, Mexico's former Attorney General, told Al Jazeera in a report on Veracruz’s mass firings, “The great paradox is that we pay for the training of organized crime through the bad planning in the training of the police. Then, we get rid of the police, and they go to organized crime.”
Similar concerns have been raised in Nicaragua, where some 300 police are reportedly fired each year. Security analyst Roberto Orozco told El Nuevo Diario recently that the failure of the authorities to check up on officers who have been dismissed mean that many will continue working with organized crime or gangs. The newspaper added that this could lead to a home-grown Nicaraguan version of the Zetas.
Another risk of over-thorough purges is that they may leave the field open to criminal groups, once federal forces are deployed elsewhere. This is a problem for Monterrey, in Nuevo Leon, where the government is having trouble recruiting new officers to fill the gap left by those fired in a recent purge, according to a report in Letras Libres magazine. The reporter notes a strange absence of police as he crosses the city, only a week after the slaying of 52 in an arson attack, and one government official tells him that this is due to the “alarming deficit” of officers following a recent purge. As Letras Libres puts it; “No one wants a job in which you risk your life if you don’t become corrupt.”
In the most dangerous parts of Mexico, local and state police officers who do the bidding of organized crime are not always dishonest or corrupt people -- simply ones who want to stay alive. Proceso magazine recently published an interview with a jailed Sinaloa Cartel operative, who was recruited while working as a policeman in Ciudad Juarez. The way he told it, officers had little choice but to follow the commands of criminal groups; "If someone isn’t on 'the payroll', that person [still] has to obey the orders that are given. Because if they don’t obey the orders, [the gangs] would kill that person."
The great danger faced by police officers who fail to cooperate with crime is illustrated by reams of evidence from Mexico’s bloodiest corners. On Tuesday, a 27-year-old municipal officer was burned alive in broad daylight on a Juarez street; bound hand and foot and with a plastic bag over his head, his attackers doused the officer in flammable liquid and set him alight in front of helpless onlookers. Thursday, Mexico’s official “Day of the Police,” saw the killings of four officers in Hidalgo state alone, in what authorities said was probably a revenge attack for the arrest of some members of the Zetas.
Given the risks run by officers who anger the criminal groups, purging the force will not be enough to stop the rot. What is to prevent the replacement officers, however well-trained and well-paid, from succumbing to the threats from organized crime just like those who were removed?