Setbacks in Mexico's war on corruption

President Felipe Calderón's government has made a series of moves to clean up the country's police force. Results are open to interpretation.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Drug violence: Police tape surrounded a crime scene earlier this month in Tijuana. The city's security secretary was fired Dec. 1 after 37 people were killed in three days.
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On Friday, Mexico's government announced that an Army officer was arrested on suspicion that he sold information about President Felipe Calderón's movements to drug cartels, the closest official to the president to be arrested thus far.

It was another embarrassing setback for Mr. Calderón, who has made the battle against drug trafficking a cornerstone of his presidency since taking office two years ago. He has employed the military to lead the fight, particularly where the local forces are, at best, ineffectual and, at worst, in collusion with drug cartels. He also promised to modernize and clean up the police force with a series of training courses, incentives, and trust tests.

Calderón has been hailed for his gumption, but corruption cases have reached the highest ranks. Now, many Mexicans are concerned that the military could become as corrupt as the law enforcement agencies, and police reform experts say Calderón's strategy is not going far enough to address long-term institutional shortcomings.

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"The efforts, which are good, will have no good results if they don't work at the same time on creating institutional accountability systems," says Ernesto Lopez Portillo, a leading expert on police reform and executive director of the Institute for Security and Democracy (Insyde) in Mexico City.

Police reform: no small task

In 2008, the number of those killed in drug-related violence rose to over 5,300 – double the number tallied the year before.

In some cities, such as Tijuana, the military has temporarily taken over for police forces widely believed to be colluding with local drug traffickers.

Police reform is an enormous task, especially when participating in the $40 billion drug trade becomes far more profitable than the average $375 monthly wage for police officers.

One of the first moves the Calderón administration made was to start consolidating the two federal police forces under one unit, headed by the nation's top security director Genaro Garcia Luna.

He has opened a sleek new police campus in Mexico City, beefed up training and recruitment, and has begun to connect the country's disparate police forces in one database to improve intelligence-gathering and efficiency.

The government has also not shied away from condemning those snared in stings.

In June 2007, 284 federal officers were purged from the force and sent back to training. In recent months, after Calderón launched Operation Clean House, more than a dozen high-ranking cops and authorities have been netted. Among the most shocking: Noe Ramirez, a former head of the anti-organized crime unit in the attorney general's office, on charges that he received $450,000 from drug traffickers in exchange for intelligence.

For the nation, it was proof of how deep graft goes; the government called it a sign of how far they are willing to go to root it out. "The most relevant aspect is that it shakes off the feeling that corruption is a normal part of life in law enforcement," says a senior Mexican official who, as standard practice, spoke on condition of anonymity.

The US has hailed Calderón's commitment to stamping out organized crime. Some 15 percent of $400 million in antinarcotics aid to Mexico – called the Merida Initiative – is earmarked to clean up police forces.

But Edgardo Buscaglia, a visiting professor of law and economics at the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology, says that initiatives such as Operation Clean House are only a response to pressures from wealthy Mexicans – many of whom have had children kidnapped in recent months – not an overall approach to getting at the roots of police corruption.

Today, Mexico is reaching out to the local forces with a series of polygraph, wealth, and competency tests, and increasing budgets for equipment where standards are met. Of more than 56,065 officers at the state and municipal levels tested since Jan. 1, 2008, some 50 percent failed.

Corruption spans well beyond the fight against drug trafficking.

According to the national public security office, the number of kidnappings surged to 943 as of November 25 of this year, compared with 630 last year.

Institutionalized corruption

Mr. Buscaglia says that organized crime – which includes more than 25 areas including money laundering and human smuggling – affects 63 percent of all the nation's municipalities.

It in many ways reflects the institutionalization of bribery and corruption in Mexican society: Transparency Mexico reports that $2 billion is spent each year in paying bribes.

On International Anti-Corruption Day, Calderón said that 11,500 public servants have been fined for corruption, totaling nearly $300 million.

"To stop delinquency, we first have to get rid of it in our own house," Calderón said. "We know that the challenges are many and the road that we must travel … is long and difficult, but we will not give in."

But police are among the most susceptible – and many worry that the militarization of the fight against drug traffickers will make the military just as vulnerable. In cities across the country, traffickers have unfurled banners "recruiting" soldiers and former soldiers. Military forces across the country have said they've received offers from drug traffickers.

"The difficulty that President Calderón faces is that he is trying to carry out the transformation of Mexican law enforcement ... which is not the sort of thing that can render tangible results in the short term," says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexican expert in Washington and founder of the Washington-based consulting firm Peschard-Sverdrup & Associates.

He compares Calderón's quandary to the moment Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq. "I don't think there is ever a point that Calderón can claim 'mission accomplished,' " says Mr. Peschard-Sverdrup

Tomorrow: How one city uses cameras to root out corruption.

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