By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
4:26 PM PDT, October 6, 2010
Reporting from Mexico City
Amid a bloody war against drug cartels, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said Wednesday that he was sending Congress a plan to overhaul the country's police system by doing away with local forces, long a weak link in law enforcement.
The proposed reform, which would require amending the Mexican Constitution, would eliminate the nation's 2,000 municipal departments, where officers tend to be undertrained and ill-paid and are seen as vulnerable to corruption by criminal groups. Patrol duties in towns and cities would be taken over by the 31 states.
The idea, called "unified command," has been debated for months, as the death toll from the nearly 4-year-old drug war surpassed 28,000 and signs of police collusion with crime syndicates continued to pile up.
In August, six municipal officers in the northern state of Nuevo Leon were arrested in the assassination of Santiago Mayor Edelmiro Cavazos outside the important industrial city of Monterrey. Local police officers are often swept up in arrests of drug henchmen.
Calderon already is behind a police overhaul at the federal level, where a hiring spree has boosted the number of federal officers to 33,000 and a state-of-the-art academy draws trainers from the United States. That reform drive includes drug screening and polygraph tests to weed out suspect police and recruits, a policy that is eventually to apply to all officers in Mexico.
The federal cleanup has revealed problems. In August, officials announced that about 3,200 officers — nearly a tenth of the federal force — had been fired since January for failing drug screenings and other causes, such as absenteeism and substandard performance.
Despite that, Calderon and aides have argued that the Achilles heel of Mexican law enforcement is at the local level, not the federal. Mexico's 165,000 municipal officers make up more than a third of the country's roughly 425,000 total.
Shabbily trained and ill-equipped local police are no match for potent drug gangs and many officers' frequent attempts to solicit bribes make them widely loathed by the residents they are meant to protect. In addition, more than 400 communities lack a police force. In places with municipal forces, 90% have fewer than 100 officers.
"Municipal police are the most vulnerable, the easiest to find, the easiest to co-opt, the most subject to intimidation and, of course, vengeance," Calderon said Wednesday during a police recognition ceremony for federal police. "It is necessary to change course."
The proposal to eliminate the local departments has the support of the nation's governors and the main opposition party, making congressional passage likely. As a constitutional reform, the measure would also have to be approved by at least 17 of the 31 state legislatures.
Mexico's mayors, who would lose control of local police and the budgets that support them, have come out against the plan, complaining that they have been blamed unfairly for Mexico's crime woes and excluded from the discussion of how to improve law enforcement. In August, municipal groups said the "unified command" proposal ignored successful efforts to professionalize and equip police in some cities.
Some experts have warned that concentrating police authority at the state level could make it easier for criminal organizations to control entire regions by buying off or intimidating state commanders.
Besides that, state police have proved as suspect as municipal officers. The country's 196,000 state police make up almost half of officers nationwide and have frequently been found to be working for drug cartels and other crime groups. About 30,000 investigators are assigned to prosecutors' offices around the country.
Officials have said consolidating police at the state level will make it easier to oversee professionalization and vetting aimed at rooting out graft.
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