A new attitude: Mexico's police put bite on corruption

In an effort win back public trust, Mexico City is sending its cops back to school.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's a common scenario in this traffic-choked megalopolis: A motorcycle patrolman roars up behind a car, flashing his lights. Whether or not the driver of the car committed an offense, he pulls over, sinks in his seat, and wonders, "How much is this going to cost me?"

After looking over the driver's license and registration, the patrolman leans toward the window. "I can see you are in a rush," he says, smiling. "Perhaps we can come to an arrangement."

The driver hands over some cash – an average of $11 for all traffic- and nontraffic-related bribes, according to Transparency Mexico, a watchdog group – and continues on his way. He just paid a bribe commonly known as a mordida, or bite.

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The scenario is typical in this sprawling city of 22 million, where 63 percent said they were bitten last year, according to a survey by Transparency Mexico. It's a situation that Mexico City's Public Safety Department hopes to change.

In the latest in a series of nationwide cop-cleanup programs, 814 motorcycle patrols were sent to the sprawling police academy for an intensive reeducation program. It includes classes in law, anticorruption, self-defense, human rights, and, after more than 10 percent failed basic fitness tests, daily calisthenics.

Academy director Juan Torres admits it can be difficult to change entrenched habits.

"With a young mind you have a fertile field," he says, referring to the almost 3,000 fresh-faced cadets also attending his school. "With these [older] guys, it is a matter of rescuing values."

Mr. Torres and other instructors at the academy say the deep mistrust most Mexicans have toward the police contributes to a generally low sense of self-esteem on the force, which brings many to indulge in criminal behavior.

"We treat our police very aggressively," says academic director Maria Teresa Glase, adding that programs to reeducate Mexico's finest should be coupled with a national campaign to improve public attitudes toward them.

In a nearby classroom, meanwhile, a group of 50 motorcycle cops are role-playing in a workshop designed to teach self-respect and public relations. One of the students pretends to pull over a motorist, played by a classmate, who spews a string of obscenities at him. The class erupts in laughter.

"Stay calm," urges the teacher. "Speak with authority, but stay calm."

Other workshops teach the patrolmen safe driving skills, or suggest ways they may turn down proffered bribes.

But in a city where starting salaries for police are as low as 4,000 pesos ($410) a month, even the academy director admits the temptation to accept bribes is high.

"I've been wearing this uniform for 32 years," says Torres. "And I can tell you, it is not an easy life."

In addition to taking bribes from passing motorists, some of Mexico City's men and women in uniform have been accused of being on the payroll of local restaurants, bars, and drug traffickers.

Police themselves complain that they have to pay their commanders to move up the ranks, or to get assigned to lucrative patrols in nightlife districts where opportunities for dirty money abound.

Experts agree the fastest way to solve the problem would be to boost police salaries, and raise the basic standards of those accepted on the force. But it is unlikely Mexico's cash-strapped government can come up with the funds.

Yet President Vicente Fox and Mexico City Governor Andrés Manuel López Obrador are both under pressure to show they are doing something to fight crime.

A nationwide survey of 35,000 people published last week found that 75 percent perceive crime rates as rising, but that two-thirds don't bother reporting crime because they view the police and justice systems as inefficient, incompetent, and corrupt.

Mexico City led the way, with 39 percent of residents reporting that they or some member of their household had been a victim of crime in 2001. The nationwide average was 14 percent.

Experts say reforming Mexico's complicated patchwork of police forces will be difficult. For example, a Mexico City police cadet must have a high school degree and train for at least six months before hitting the streets. In the western state of Guerrero, however, police cadets don't even have to have finished elementary school, and they train for a mere three months.

Torres says the academy is keeping extensive files on the patrolmen currently under their tutelage. Based on drug tests, academic scores, fitness tests, and psychological profiles, he will soon send an assessment of each candidate to the department of public security.

"Of course we hope all of them pass the program," says Torres, when asked what percentage of the motorcycle cops can make the grade. Then he laughs. "How many will patrol the streets again? Who knows?"

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