WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
8 May 2014 | Publication | News

Mexico’s Police: Many Reforms, Little Progress

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WOLA is proud to release a new, comprehensive report, titled Mexico’s Police: Many Reforms, Little Progress, which provides an overview of police reform efforts over the past two decades and examines why, in spite of multiple initiatives, Mexican police forces continue to be abusive and corrupt. In the context of the ongoing security crisis in parts of Mexico, the study argues that a failure to increase efforts to hold Mexico’s police accountable for their actions will only perpetuate a vicious pattern of police abuse and a climate of mistrust between the police and the population.

The study assesses the sweeping changes made to the criminal justice system in recent years and evaluates federal initiatives to support state and municipal police reform, vet all police forces through the confidence control (control de confianza) and evaluation system, and strengthen oversight mechanisms, such as Internal Affairs Units. Although Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has promised a new security strategy in order to reduce violence and recover citizen trust in police forces, the report shows that his administration has largely maintained the initiatives and police model that were put into place during the Calderón administration.

The report contends that while much has been done to reform Mexico’s police, establishing strong internal and external controls has not been a priority for the Mexican government. This has meant that agents implicated in wrongdoing–from acts of corruption to grave human rights violations–have little incentive to change their actions, because the odds are slim that they will ever be investigated and sanctioned.

The study further argues that comprehensive police reform is urgently needed in order to reverse the trend to militarize public security in the country. The Mexican government has argued that it needs to use the military in police roles because police forces are either too corrupt or to ill-trained to handle the high levels of crime and violence seen in recent years. However, Mexico’s experience has shown that deploying the military cannot be a substitute for building police forces that fight crime with the trust and cooperation of ordinary citizens, and the militarization of public security in the country has resulted in a dramatic increase in human rights violations by the Mexican Armed Forces.

As the force positioned to take over the role of the Mexican military in areas with high levels of crime and violence, the Federal Police are given particular attention in this report. The Mexican government has held up the Federal Police as a modern, professional, and well-trained force, and it grew significantly between 2006 and 2012, from 6,500 agents in 2006 to 37,000 in 2012. But with demands to show results in the Mexican government’s efforts to combat organized crime and an environment permissive of abuse, an increase in the size of the force also led to persistently high allegations of human rights violations. In 2006, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) received 146 complaints of human rights violations; by 2012, that number had grown to 802. In 2013, the CNDH issued 14 recommendations regarding human rights violations committed by Federal Police agents. In one incident in April 2013, Federal Police agents in civilian clothes shot at two university students who were driving in a vehicle on the outskirts of Mexico City, killing one of the students.

Migrant shelters in Mexico report that Federal Police officers are increasingly preying on migrants. In a 2013 survey conducted by migrant shelters about abuses against migrants in transit during the first six months of 2013, 59 cases involved abuses committed by the Federal Police, representing 35 percent of the total cases registered of abuses by Mexican authorities. This was more cases than any other agency. In many of these cases, Federal Police officers boarded commercial passenger buses, identified Central American migrants, and demanded payment, threatening to turn migrants over to immigration authorities if they did not pay.

The report provides an analysis of U.S. funding for Mexico’s police, tracing its evolution from an initial focus on “big-ticket” items, including six Blackhawk helicopters, to its current emphasis on institutional strengthening. The report also issues a word of caution for future U.S. security assistance to Mexico, since U.S.-funded equipment and hardware may lead to short-term tactical victories, but will not contribute to building the rights-respecting institutions that Mexico needs. As it determines with the Mexican government how to allocate the remaining US$900 million in funds appropriated through the Merida Initiative through FY2013, the report recommends that the U.S. government prioritize efforts to strengthen accountability mechanisms for Mexico’s police.

The report affirms that President Peña Nieto has the opportunity to turn the page on human rights violations by Mexican police and focus on measures to hold Mexico’s security forces accountable for their actions, and it cautions that the failure to do so will perpetuate a vicious pattern of police abuse and a climate of mistrust between the police and the population. It provides a series of recommendations for the Mexican government on ways to strengthen police reform efforts, particularly in the area of accountability.