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Mexican federal forces disarmed local police in Acapulco. Will it work?

Mexican federal forces disarmed local police in Acapulco. Will it work?
Mexican navy members and federal police take part in an operation in Acapulco on Sept. 25, 2018. (Francisco Robles / AFP/Getty Images)

Seeking to curb rampant gang violence and police corruption in the seaside city of Acapulco, Mexican authorities are taking a gamble: replacing local cops with state police and the military.

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Federal officials say it is a last-ditch effort to bring peace to Acapulco, once a glamorous resort favored by Hollywood celebrities that has become one of the most murderous cities on Earth.

The local police force appears to have been infiltrated by organized crime, authorities said.

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The strategy of sending in soldiers and state and federal police to do the work of neighborhood cops has been employed in other parts of the country, with mixed results. Critics say the plan is treating a symptom instead of the underlying disease — ineffective and corrupt policing — and that it is unlikely to reduce crime and could lead to human rights abuses.

Mexico’s local police forces are famously under-trained and badly compensated, with some officers paid as little as $300 a month and required to buy their own uniforms and even bullets. That makes them susceptible to gangs, who offer money in return for loyalty — and threaten violence if they disobey.

Police collusion with criminals has ranged from officers looking the other way when a crime has been committed to detaining people and turning them over to gangs.

Mexico, with substantial support from the United States, has made efforts to professionalize local police forces in recent years, with a focus on improving training and vetting procedures for new recruits.

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But experts say those changes will have little impact without more mechanisms for accountability. That could include the formation of civilian oversight commissions, which are common in many American cities, and the strengthening of internal affairs units.

Firing corrupt officers and replacing them with new cadets is not enough, said Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope.

”You need much broader change,” he said. “You need a mechanism to ensure the police remain clean.”

Other Mexican cities and towns have seen their local police agencies disarmed in recent years, but Acapulco is the biggest city yet to embark on the experiment.

The city, whose decline began a decade ago, had 941 homicides last year, or 107 for every 100,000 inhabitants. That's more than 15 times the homicide rate in Los Angeles.

More than a dozen criminal groups are battling for access to drug trafficking plazas, street-level drug sales and dominance of extortion rackets, according to officials.

This week’s move was provoked by the “the nonexistent response of the municipal police to confront the crime wave,” the task force overseeing the disarmament of Acapulco police said in a statement Tuesday.

The task force, known as the Guerrero Coordination Group, said that all members of the police force have been required to turn in their bulletproof vests, radios and weapons and that two police commanders had been charged with homicide while the rest of the force is being investigated.

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Mexican soldiers have been involved in carrying out public security functions since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon declared war on the country’s increasingly powerful drug cartels.

But in recent years, their role has grown in some parts of the country where local cops are seen as particularly corrupt, including in the states of Oaxaca, Jalisco, Colima and Nuevo Leon. In the state of Tamaulipas, which borders southeast Texas, nearly all local police forces have been disbanded and replaced by state and federal police and soldiers.

In Guerrero, the violence-plagued state where Acapulco is located, the same strategy has been employed in several towns.

Although surveys show that Mexicans generally trust soldiers more than they trust local police officers, there is also mounting evidence that soldiers — trained in tactics of war against foreign armies — are not equipped to perform domestic police functions.

A U.S. State Department cable made public by WikiLeaks in 2010 found that the Mexican military’s presence in the troubled border city of Juarez had been ineffective.

“The military was not trained to patrol the streets or carry out law enforcement operations,” the cable said. “It does not have the authority to collect and introduce evidence into the judicial system. The result: Arrests skyrocketed, prosecutions remained flat, and both the military and public have become increasingly frustrated.”

The armed forces have also faced repeated accusations of torture, illegal arrests and extrajudicial killings. Between January 2012 and August 2016, there were 5,541 complaints of human rights violations against the armed forces registered with the National Human Rights Commission.

Even some current and former soldiers have recently joined human rights groups in denouncing Mexico’s ever-increasing militarization of civilian law enforcement, a trend solidified last year by controversial legislation known as the Internal Security Law.

Hundreds of human rights groups pushed lawmakers to reject the law, which expands the powers of the armed forces to combat national security risks inside Mexico. The United Nations high commissioner for human rights warned that the measure would give too much power to the military without the necessary civilian checks and balances.

Many human rights officials say that state and federal forces are not necessarily less corrupt than local law enforcement. They point to the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from a small town in Guerrero as proof.

Federal investigators say local police kidnapped the students and turned them over to a drug gang, which subsequently killed them and burned their bodies. But international experts have disputed that account, calling for investigations into the role of federal police and the military.

Federal prosecutors have failed to find any remains or secure convictions for those responsible. The mass disappearance occurred four years ago on Wednesday.

As human rights advocates marched and held protests this week to commemorate the students, many Mexicans angrily decried news of the military intervention in Acapulco.

Security analyst Ernesto Lopez Portillo complained on Twitter that Mexico was duplicating known mistakes. “It repeats itself in endless cycles of inefficiency,” he said.

Maria Elena Morera, an anti-violence advocate and president of the nonprofit Common Cause, said that Mexicans deserve more information about what is planned in Acapulco, as well as more accountability.

“When federal forces enter, nobody is responsible,” she said. “At least tell us: What is the strategy? How are they going to operate it? Who will oversee it? When are they going to train the local police to resume their functions?”

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Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

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