Mexican president dissolves municipal police forces in bid to stop drug gangs

Measure among a raft of reforms and plans announced by Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday

A group of Mexico City police officers photographed on October 15.
A group of Mexico City police officers photographed on October 15.C. DAUT (REUTERS)

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has set out his next major objective in the fight against impunity in his country. Faced with an indignant nation after the disappearance of 43 teaching students in Iguala, the leader is trying to take back the initiative with a wide-reaching package of reforms, including some major constitutional changes, aimed at bringing an end to the ineffectiveness of the Mexican police and the courts.

“Because of the tragedy in Iguala, Mexico is being put to the test once more,” Peña Nieto said in a televised address from the National Palace on Thursday. “Mexico cannot continue like this, and I assume the responsibility of the fight to liberate the country from criminality, to end impunity, and to see all of those who are guilty of the tragedy in Iguala punished.”

To deal with this challenge, the president announced that all 1,800 municipal police forces – which are made up of more than 170,000 officers – would be dissolved and integrated into 32 state forces. The process will begin in the states of Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán and Tamaulipas. “This reform implies an enormous budgetary challenge. And it requires a responsible administrative process of transition, which gives priority to the institutions that are in most urgent need of attention,” the president continued.

Mexico cannot go on like this, and I assume the responsibility of the fight to liberate it from criminality” Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto

These drastic measures will be combined with a law to facilitate the fight against the infiltration of drug traffickers in municipal organizations, which is one of the problems that came to light in Iguala, where both local police and the mayor were on the payroll of the Guerreros Unidos cartel. The reform will allow federal authorities to assume control of councils or dissolve them when there are indications that they are working under the orders of organized crime.

Peña Nieto also announced he would be sending a police contingent (10,000 federal officers, according to parliamentary sources) to Tierra Caliente, the violent region spread between Michoacán, Guerrero and Mexico State that over recent years has been the principal focus of criminality in the country. As Peña Nieto admitted in his speech, the state has lost ground to organized crime there.

The president also announced that the country’s penal code would be reorganized in order to hone the fight against small-scale drug trafficking, “the basis for corruption,” as he described it. A new national identity card will be created, and systems to monitor crimes such as forced disappearances will also be strengthened.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.José Méndez (EFE)

Peña Nieto concluded his announcement of reforms with social measures destined to reduce inequality and poverty in the poorest states, such as Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, with a plan to create special areas for development.

But the key element of his announcement was the plan to transform the security forces in the country – but that won’t be easy. Ninety percent of the population believes that the police are one of Mexico’s most corrupt institutions. An average of 63 homicides take place in the country every day (Spain barely registers one a day), as well as 20 disappearances and five kidnappings. This steady stream of cases is dealt with by a faulty justice system, as demonstrated by the facts that 97 percent of murder cases fail to end in conviction and that, according to Human Rights Watch, since 2006 not a single person has been convicted for forced disappearances.

The result is a widespread lack of confidence, which has led many citizens to avoid the police when they are victims of a crime. This is the case, for example, with kidnappings, only two percent of which are ever reported, according to a study by the country’s National Statistics Institute. The penetration of drug gangs in the hierarchy of the police only serves to fuel the distrust of the public. In the last five years alone, more than 2,500 municipal officers have been arrested for involvement in felonies.

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The continual purges to which the local forces have been subjected since the presidency of Felipe Calderón (2000-2006) have served for little. Again and again, the same methods are employed: in order to take control of municipal officers, all that is needed is a group of hitmen, who use bullets or blackmail to get what they want.

In Iguala, for example, the chief of the Municipal Police was being paid $48,000 a month, and his officers were chosen directly by the cartel. The mayor and his wife were also members of the organization.

“The tragedy of Iguala was a combination of unacceptable conditions of institutional weakness, which we cannot ignore,” Peña Nieto said in his address. “A criminal group that controlled the territory; municipal authorities who were part of the very structure of the criminal organization; municipal police officers who were actually criminals at the orders of the criminals. The most challenging thing for Mexico is that, in spite of the actions undertaken in the current and former administrations, some of these conditions of institutional weakness remain present.”

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