Can Colombian expert reform Mexico's troubled police force?

Retired Colombian police chief Oscar Naranjo was appointed Mexico's new security adviser. But the bureaucratic and political challenges he will face in Mexico may surprise him.

Edgard Garrido/Reuters
Enrique Peña Nieto (r.), then-candidate of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), shakes hands with former head of the National Police of Colombia and retired general Oscar Naranjo in Mexico City in this June 14 file photo. President-elect Nieto has appointed Naranjo as Mexico's new security adviser.

InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Steven Dudley's research here.

Retired Colombian police chief General Oscar Naranjo makes a sexy choice as a security adviser for Mexico's President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, but the bureaucratic and political challenges Naranjo will face in Mexico may surprise him and strangle his attempts to reform the country's security forces.

Naranjo is highly qualified for the job, having already lived through the transformation of a discredited police force. In the 1980s, when Naranjo was a sprite, young officer, Colombia's police looked eerily similar to Mexico's: almost completely at the service of the narcos. These days, Colombia's police are a model for the region. They train police forces around the hemisphere, and Naranjo's appointment as Peña Nieto's security chief is the crowning moment of this reach.

The single greatest achievement during the reform period was Colombia's development of the most sophisticated and effective police intelligence service in the region. As the head of the intelligence branch for years, Naranjo was at the forefront of that reform.

This experience goes beyond understanding how to create a professional police force. Naranjo has also worked very closely with corrupt police officers and has been accused on more than one occasion of being corrupt himself.

One of his colleagues from the force, Danilo Gonzalez, became the head of a criminal enterprise of current and ex-officers known as the Devil's Cartel. Gonzalez was killed in 2004. Other colleagues have been or are now facing extradition to the United States to confront drug trafficking charges.

Naranjo has been almost untouchable during this period, although more along the lines of the tough Irish sidekick who understands the Chicago streets, rather than the incorruptible Eliot Ness.

So Naranjo knows how awkward it is to work every day with people you do not trust and gently ease them to the door to minimize the harm they can do. This is essential, though rarely acknowledged, to any reform effort, and something that Mexico has begun, albeit halfheartedly and in a piecemeal manner.

Naranjo also understands the job. He knows how to walk the fine line of pleasing his boss (the president) and his benefactors (the United States). He is political without coming across as a politician.

He knows and understands the press better than any other police commander in the region. To cite just one example, Naranjo himself broke the news that his brother (repeat: HIS BROTHER) was to be charged with drug trafficking in Germany, thereby controlling the story.

However, in a strange way, Naranjo has had it easy in Colombia. For nearly a decade, he was the commander of a large national police force. Colombia has about 180,000 national police officers. Naranjo also controlled the different branches, from intelligence to special operations.

He could move his troops, helicopters and intelligence infrastructure at his own discretion. He could focus on a leader or a logistics hub. He could centralize his databases and other streams of information. He could marginalize his worst and most corrupt personnel, and maximize the use of his best and most honest officers.

Colombia has also been receptive to outside assistance, much more so than Mexico. This means money, equipment and technical assistance came over a period of decades. There are, of course, limitations to this aid, and Colombians eventually understood they needed to take command, rather than "depending" on the gringos. The results are obvious: the lifespan of a Colombian capo these days is measured in weeks, not years.

In Mexico, Naranjo will be looking at a very different scenario. Mexico, a country with more than double Colombia's population, has 450,000 police, but only 32,000 are at the national level. The rest are mostly state and municipal officers, technically out of federal purview or control.

Perhaps more daunting is Mexico's political climate. The sectarian nature of Mexican politics has made security policy a real wild card. Peña Nieto will most likely continue much of what the current administration started, albeit in a more subtle and quiet manner. But other things, such as police reform, will almost surely be shelved as Peña Nieto's party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), settles into power in 21 of the country's 32 states.

Current President Felipe Calderon has unsuccessfully pushed to nationalize the police, and would settle for having the states absorb the municipal police forces. But neither will happen before his term ends in December, and the PRI is federalist to the core, making reform next to impossible in the next six years.

Naranjo may be able to help some to implement reform on the local level. But so far, these attempts have been politically and tactically challenging, and maybe even counterproductive. Purges have left areas undefended or pushed former cops right into the hands of the criminals (perhaps officializing already existing relationships).

Naranjo will also be staring at a different organizational chart and some political battles that may make his time rotating chairs in Colombia (he bypassed several higher-ranked generals to become police commander, for example, forcing those above him to retire) seem like a walk in the park.

In Colombia, the police is part of the Defense Ministry. However, in Mexico, the police is part of the Secretariat of Public Security (SSP) and compete with the Defense Ministry and the Attorney General's Office, among others, for resources, prestige, and information. The result is that the security and judicial forces in Mexico do not trust each other and do not work very well together. Within this context, the SSP, which has been the greatest beneficiary of new security monies under Calderon, is seen as the "spoiled child" of the current administration.

This battle plays out on various levels, including over who controls intelligence, the exact area where Naranjo could do his best work. But the new PRI government (and its allies in the military) seem sure to make the SSP, a target for "reform," i.e., debilitate it by stripping it of resources, mandate, and intelligence capabilities. That was clear from Peña Nieto's first declarations in which he talked of an army-generated special forces unit.

A weakened SSP could make the police a second option in the strategy to fight organized crime. And this may be Naranjo's and Mexico's biggest challenge: keeping police reform and its forces at the forefront of the security side of the anti-crime equation.

–  Steven Dudley is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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