Mexico’s local police are unappreciated, at high risk

SUNDAY, DEC. 19, 2010

Reformers look for ways to upgrade the profession

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – When gangsters kill a police officer – or even three of them – it rarely makes news in this violent border city.

What’s worse, hardly anyone seems to mourn fallen cops.

When officers are gunned down, as they have been 65 times so far this year in this city alone, and 475 times across the nation just through October, many citizens think it’s because they’re crooked or mixed up with drug cartels.

So on a recent day, the fate of municipal police Officers Pedro Ramos, Mayra Ibarra and Osvaldo Rodriguez as they sat in a parked police pickup caused little stir in these parts, and wasn’t worthy of a front-page article in either major newspaper.

The officers were patrolling in the San Felipe del Real district of this city of 1.3 million people. They pulled up to an elementary school, and a fourth officer hopped out to get a signature on a log to show that the cops had made their rounds.

The other three, all relatively inexperienced, made a tactical error that cost them their lives. They sat in the double-cabin pickup, enclosed and barely able to fire back when gangsters in two vehicles pulled up and squeezed the triggers on assault weapons.

A municipal public security bureau spokesman, Adrian Sanchez, said he didn’t know the motive of the assailants.

“This attack was part of the struggle between good people and bad people,” he said.

Observers and citizen advocates acknowledge that police officers get little respect in Mexico.

Underpaid, under-trained and facing severe threat from powerful organized-crime groups, cops often see their jobs as only one step better than unemployment.

“It’s like the last option for work for a young person. People say, ‘You couldn’t find work? Become a policeman,’ ” said Gustavo de la Rosa, a Chihuahua state human rights ombudsman.

Mexico has multiple law enforcement agencies, including a federal police force of some 33,000, along with 371,000 officers in 2,022 municipal police departments and 32 state police forces. Turnover is sky-high. In the last 31/2 years, President Felipe Calderon said on Oct. 6, turnover among state and local police was 106 percent.

In August, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said drug trafficking organizations spent about $100 million a month in bribes to police officers across the nation. He said 60 percent of municipal cops earned less than $317 a month.

“What we have to do is launch a campaign to dignify the profession of being a police officer, to make it a respectable profession,” De la Rosa said. “It isn’t considered so now. It’s considered a temporary job.”

Calderon is on a quest for police reform, emphasizing that the officers are on the front lines against organized crime. In a move to create a unified federal command and set standards for training and pay, Calderon sent a bill to Congress on Oct. 6 that would place federal police in charge of all levels of police in Mexico.


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