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Chihuahua City now a model for cleaning up Mexico's police

A three-month-old program that allows human rights workers 24-hour access to live images of prison life is the newest effort toward transparency for Chihuahua's lauded police department.

By Staff writer / December 31, 2008

Driven: Lazaro Gaytan, the police chief of Chihuahua City's police force, calls transparency a 'personal conviction.'

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor

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Chihuahua city, Mexico

There is nothing extraordinary inside the municipal jail in Chihuahua City: Half a dozen men kill time – some sleeping, others pacing – their languid motions caught on TV monitors outside their cells.

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But the cameras aren't just to aid the guards. Across town, Chihuahua's state human rights office is viewing the same scene on a TV screen that shows images from cameras set up throughout two city jails.

The three-month-old program, which allows human rights workers 24-hour access, is the newest effort toward transparency in Chihuahua's police department. And in a country where the police rank among the least respected institutions, Chihuahua's moves toward accountability are garnering its police a rare reputation for honesty and competency that experts hope can be implemented elsewhere.

"I dare to say that they are the best municipal police in Mexico," says Juan Salgado, a police reform expert in Mexico City who is compiling a report on the best practices in Chihuahua, to be distributed to police departments across the country.

The force's most visible sign of accomplishment to date hangs outside the municipal police department in Chihuahua city: a banner boasting of the May 2007 certification given by the Virginia-based Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (Calea).

Police force in a league of its own

The force was the first – and is still the only – municipal force in Mexico to be accredited by Calea. It means they meet 459 standards ranging from procedure codes to ensuring higher levels of training for cops. Many other forces in the country are now seeking to follow suit.

It was a huge feat, but it is innovations in transparency and accountability that Mr. Salgado says have made a bigger difference.

On a recent day, a young man in Chihuahua's municipal jail gets cuffed and carted off to federal authorities after getting caught selling cocaine on the street the night before. The cameras above him record every action.

Ernesto Garnica, who is in charge of public security at Chihuahua's human rights office, says that he does not view every such incident, but cameras modify behavior. "It's an accountability tool, but also a preventive measure," Mr. Garnica says, pointing to the images on the TV placed in front of his desk. He says it's working: Last year they registered 103 complaints, slightly higher than this year's 96 complaints to date.

Citizens work to keep cops honest

The 1,000-member force in Chihuahua has also opened itself to public scrutiny. All complaints that the state human rights department receives, for example, are posted on the Internet. Citizens have also formed a committee consisting of more than 50 organizations, such as universities and business associations, divided into seven commissions. Citizen review boards are common in the US but are a rarity in Mexico, says Antia Mendoza, a police reform researcher at the Institute for Security and Democracy (Insyde) in Mexico City.

The commissions, all volunteer, organize training for police, give them access to credit for cars and homes – often difficult for officers to gain – and even have a say in the promotion of police officers.

When citizens started participating in police matters four years ago, it was revolutionary, says Ignacio Manjarrez, the operational president of the citizen's committee, which is housed under the local chapter of Coparmex, an employers' union. "But times are changing, and the participation of citizens is every day more important."