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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."