Mexican Activists Try to Put the Bite on Police Corruption

NINE months ago, ex-cop Jose Angel Perez Lopez lay beneath a black plastic tarp on a starvation strike in front of the United States Embassy here.

After 48 days of media attention, his protest - mounted to expose Mexican police corruption - ended when Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho Solis came to his bedside. The mayor agreed to investigate his charges and to reinstate the 13-year police veteran who had lost his job when he blew the whistle on police malfeasance.

Today, strapping on a bullet-proof vest and easing behind the wheel of his patrol car, Lieutenant Perez Lopez is the vision of a healthy, dedicated officer. But, he says, police corruption continues.

"Nothing has changed. The supervisors still demand money from the other officers, who must extort it or collect it in mordidas [the bite] from citizens," Perez Lopez says. Because of his past, they don't ask him for money, he says, but he is expected to pay for repairs to the patrol car out of his own pocket.

While abuses of power may not have abated since the hunger strike, the campaign to stop police corruption continues to gather momentum:

* In July, two "Against Police Abuse" offices were opened by the mayor to receive and investigate complaints. Critics say the offices have not been well publicized, but they have received 440 complaints and sanctioned 102 officers. "The bad cops need to feel these sanctions, they need to feel the authority," says Miguel Angel Perez Ayala, director of one office. Sanctions range from a black mark in their file to dismissal with no chance to work in any government post for five years.

* The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) published a handbook in June on the rights and obligations of the police. The book is a "bestseller" among CNDH publications and spawned a CNDH course for police officers.

* On Dec. 15, the Mexico City Assembly of Representatives voted to create a human rights commission for the Federal District. The commission means another layer of oversight and investigation into abuses, including labor issues not normally addressed by the CNDH.

* On Dec. 21, Rafael Luviano Delgado announced the formation of a Committee for the Defense of Citizens to publicize police abuses. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, after meeting Mr. Luviano, reportedly endorsed the idea. Luviano is a journalist with the national daily newspaper Excelsior who lost an eye last month when he was beaten and robbed. He claims he was attacked by police. Four suspects have been arrested. Other media are taking steps to combat police crime: El Financiero regularly publishes

a list of police commanders to channel complaints to, and a radio station relays citizens reports like traffic bulletins when cops are spotted collecting bribes.

The growing public pressure is creating a "crisis of insecurity" within police ranks, says Amalia Dolores Garcia Mendez, president of the city assembly's Public Security and Civil Protection Commission.

Mexico City's mayor and police chief are feeling the political heat, various politicians and human rights activists say. The cops in the street are also feeling the citizens' ire and a sense of diminishing impunity. In the past, Ms. Garcia says, police were protected by their local commanders when they committed crimes. But institutions formed to investigate and apply sanctions make policemen feel less secure when ordered to commit a crime. `A group of godfathers'

The problem, Garcia and others interviewed say, exists in the mid-level officers ranks. "They're a group of godfathers," she says. "They average 20 to 25 years of experience. That experience should be a virtue. But they use it to defend the interests of their police family."

Jose Luis Mendoza Prado, a 26-year traffic cop with a law degree, says the proliferation of watchdog institutions hinders crime-fighting efforts. "The CNDH and all - it's a bureaucratic mess. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry makes a complaint and we have to spend all our time defending ourselves. We can't do our work."

Mr. Mendoza says he has seen such "witchhunts" before. He says "only 10 to 12 percent of the cops are bad. But this ruins the image of the entire force."

In a detailed report of 43 cases of police abuse "among hundreds" received by her office this year, Garcia notes that most involved robbery and took place all over the city. "It shows the abuse of the citizenry is generalized. It's not just coming from one supervisor or one sector."

At a Dec. 21 hearing before Garcs commission, Mexico City Police Chief Santiago Tapia Aceves promised to investigate and respond "in a short time in writing" to each case presented. He also noted that low salaries, not something in his control, made it difficult to recruit officers.

Chief Tapia delivered his own report on the scope of challenges facing a city of 16 million patrolled by 29,000 underpaid police. Most Mexico City police make between $285 and $400 a month. Double shifts without overtime pay are common. He noted that police must respond to more than 100 serious crimes each day.

But Mexico City's crime rate is not as high as in some US cities. "The difference," Garcia says, "is that there's a higher percentage of crimes committed by police here. The police are supposed to create security, not insecurity. If I encounter the police at night, I, like most Mexicans, am afraid." Police decentralization urged

The solution advocated by Garcia and many other observers is a decentralization of the police force. Mexico City is composed of 16 districts; some districts have as many as 300 neighborhoods. Each district has an appointed political delegate. Police critics, who seek greater accountability and effectiveness, say the units should be controlled by these delegates, not a central police command.

"Put the police under the local government. Make them responsible to the citizens who know the area. Stop rotating officers," Mexico City Assembly Rep. Alberto Blanco told Tapia at the hearing.

Tapia says operational control has already been decentralized. He is willing to discuss local political control, but he notes some local governments are weak and would hurt rather than facilitate security.

A city public-security law expected to be voted on in April may alleviate some problems, Garcia says. The law would set new standards of police conduct, require new hires to have a secondary education and no criminal record or history of drug abuse, reduce the discretionary powers of sector chiefs, and create mechanisms for more interaction between local civil groups and the police.

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