Notoriously tough, Mexico's cops seek a softer side

The Rev. Richard Thomas, a Catholic priest from El Paso, crosses the border into Mexico in his beat-up white Ford and rolls into the Ciudad Juarez municipal police academy. He has arrived to do his "rounds."

An elderly man with white hair, he walks down the classroom aisles, making a cross on each student's forehead with holy oil, his assistants trailing behind and handing out foam cups of water and grains of salt. "You are loved, and you are watched," intones the priest, "God is with you and watching you every day."

Then, with a quick "Father, forgive us our sins and those of Ciudad Juarez," and with a boisterous "Amen," he is gone.

Father Thomas's visit is just one innovation at this academy. For more than a year, the recruits have been treated to an unusual roster of guests: sensitivity classes with a psychologist, discussion groups with the head of a women's shelter, seminars on values with a local university professor, and prayers and meditation led by religious leaders.

It's part of a new "sensitivity and spirituality" emphasis in the curriculum, and an effort, say instructors, to instill better values and polish a tarnished police image.

Newspapers decry police ineptitude, corruption - and worse. Two weeks ago, two municipal policemen were arrested for raping an American tourist. A federal policeman was accused of the same crime a week earlier. And the former chief of the state police is on the lam, wanted in connection to a series of murders.

And this is not a crisis limited to one Mexican city. Sixty-seven percent of people in Mexico City, according to a poll published in the daily Universal last week, do not trust the police. Fifty percent report being victimized in some way by uniformed officers.

"I would say 90 percent of the municipal and state police in this country are totally and completely unprepared to do their jobs," says Maria Elena Morera, president of Mexico Unido, a citizen group pushing for police reforms.

There is something plainly wrong with the Mexican police force and, according to Daniel Molina, director of the police academy here, it is a sickness which must be fixed in the soul.

ChiefMolina takes out a sharp pencil, leans forward in his office chair, and draws a triangle on a piece of scrap paper. "To be human, we have to be whole: psychologically, physically, and spiritually," he says. "Spirituality forms the basis of our triangle: On it, we stand," he proclaims.

A former psychology student Molina took on the top job at the academy a year and a half ago, and started tinkering with the curriculum. "Its not about religion for me," he stresses. "Its about discovering the good and spiritual within ourselves."

Antonio Sienz, a massive man with a shiny bald head, has been the academy's ammunition and arms instructor for 12 years. At first, he admits, a lot of people, including himself, were not sure about the new director. "We have a macho mentality here on the frontier," admits Sienz "...and we have a lot of characters for whom being sensitive is, to tell you the truth, not a priority."

But, says Sienz, he has come around to appreciating the training. "Police used to be unpleasant, tough guys, no 'Hello' or 'Can I help you....' Not to mention there were a lot who went down bad paths," he says, clicking off on his fingers the heads of the feared Juarez drug cartel who are said to have come out of police ranks. "This spiritual training makes you think ... about what kind of human being you want to be," he shrugs, "and that's no bad thing."

Not everyone would agree such change is evident. Martha Villalobos, a long-time Juarez resident, does not believe the police go through any such courses. "Good for them if they do," she says, tentatively. "But until I see any results of that I will continue to cross to the other side of the street when I see a cop at night."

The problems in the police, of course, go beyond the spiritual, admits Ramon Valdez, spokesman for the municipal police here. Ciudad Juarez, with close to 2 million people, has 1,500 policemen - not enough, he says, to patrol properly. More to the point, he stresses, they are poorly paid. Most agents make about $700 a month. Sergeants make $780. The best paid top investigators in the force, he says, are taking home $3,500 a month. This in a town where drug dealers are turning million dollar profits weekly. So far this year, close to 150 police have been fired for corruption and involvement with drugs, says Valdez.

Bringing in a priest and talking about values is fine, says Morera, but meaningless if not combined with other changes. Salaries must be raised, benefits added, and training professionalized and lengthened beyond the current three months, she says.

Jose Luis Simental, a new cadet waiting for his "development of human potential" class to begin, admits that even he has a negative impression of the police. "I have seen many officers in it for the money, who harass drunks and just mess around," he says.

He does not know if one good person can change the whole force, but he says, if 10 out of his incoming class of 72 "come out well," then that constitutes a good start.

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today. Eloise Quintanilla contributed to this report.

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