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

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    Driven: Lazaro Gaytan, the police chief of Chihuahua City's police force, calls transparency a 'personal conviction.'
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    On camera: Bruno Chaparro, a guard at the municipal jail in Chihuahua City, Mexico, stands in front of a cell that is monitored by camera. Human rights workers have 24-hour live access to the images.
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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.

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.

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"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."

The police chief of Chihuahua City, Lazaro Gaytan, calls transparency a "personal conviction." But it has a practical appeal, too. "The citizens help me do my job; they help me supervise," he says during in an interview in his office.

Some of these measures can be repeated in other municipal departments, says Ms. Mendoza, who specializes in citizen participation. Others are harder to copy, but Chihuahua still provides valuable lessons, most importantly in political will, she says.

Where most incoming mayors, elected to three-year terms, appoint their own officials, in Chihuahua only two men have overseen the police department in a 10-year period, says Daniel Sabet, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University who does comparative analyses of police departments in Mexico, including Chihuahua City. In other departments, he says, police chiefs have made huge strides, only to have their programs dismantled with incoming administrations. "Citizen committees can further ensure this type of continuity," Mr. Sabet says.

Police resisted this degree of transparency at first, says Captain Mauricio Escobar. "It's human nature, for all of us, to fear the citizens will use it in a political way," Mr. Escobar says. But on the contrary, it's been a way for citizens to vent frustrations and, as such, improved the relationship between the community and cops.

Mr. Gaytan also says police acceptance is practical: If they don't adapt, they won't move forward.

This does not mean that the local police are immune to criticism. The reputation they enjoy in police reform circles is not always shared by the community at large. Miguel Angel Perez, who sells candy and cigarettes on a corner in Chihuahua City, says he and other vendors have been shaken down so many times he cannot even count. "They are rats with badges," he says.

As drug violence finds its way to Chihuahua City, a place that residents boast is one where they used to leave their keys in their cars at supermarkets and their doors open at night, the reputation of the police department faces new challenges.

The corruptive forces that afflict so many other municipal police forces – some of which have been disarmed and demoted by the military, which is leading the effort against organized crime – have been the exception here so far. In arms checks carried out by the military this year, for example, no cop was arrested, says Gaytan. But when the municipality has tested its officers for drug use, some officers have refused and resigned. One officer resigned and nine months later was murdered, allegedly at the hands of drug traffickers. "There is always the possibility that someone is involved," Gaytan says. "You can never be complacent."

Gaytan says they have taken measures beyond accountability to prevent corruptive influences. They have raised salaries by 28 percent this year, he says, to an average of $750 a month for the lowest-ranked officers. And where the national average for training to become an officer is four months, here they receive nine months. They have also earmarked money for technology. Currently 100 police officers have laptops and 400 Palm Pilots are on the way. The force even has its own helicopter. That compares with some municipal police units that don't even have bulletproof vests.

Citizens say they can play a role in corruption prevention too, particularly in education and by emphasizing community policing. "If you know someone, it creates empathy," Mr. Manjarrez says. "You are not going to go and bribe them."

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