Monday, September 28, 2009

Merida Initiative Police Screenings "Inefficient" and "Ineffective"

Lauded Polygraph Tests Have Failed to Reduce Corruption

One of the Merida Initiative's stated goals in Mexico is to help the Mexican government "root out corruption" in its police forces. The Merida Initiative funds two efforts that are aimed at combatting police corruption: a National Police Registry and screenings of all police officers. A report by the Mexican daily El Universal argues that police screenings are ineffective, inefficient, and useless as they are currently being carried out.

The National Police Registry was proposed under the Merida Initiative because US lawmakers felt uneasy about dumping hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment and training into infamously corrupt Mexican police forces. According to the US State Department, the National Police Registry will eventually contain photos, biographical data, 10 fingerprints, DNA samples, voice samples, and personnel data (all employment related information, to include date of hire, education, training, disciplinary actions, and terminations) of all active Mexican police officers (federal, state, and local), auxiliary police officers, and private security companies in Mexico. The US has thus far spent $3 million on the creation of Mexico's National Police Registry.

Likewise, the Merida Initiative provides an unknown amount of funds for the creation of a National Vetting Center, which screens police officers in order to "root out corruption." The screenings entail polygraph tests, audits of officers' personal finances to detect possible "illicit enrichment," investigations of their socio-economic backgrounds, psychological evaluations, and drug tests. Mexican law requires that all police officers be screened every six months. According to the Mexican government, the Merida Initiative funds that pay for these screenings and the National Police Registry come from a $26 million pot of money for "strengthening police professionalization programs and the National Police Registry."

According to the US State Department, since President Felipe Calderon took office over 11,000 federal and about 25,000 state and local public officials and police have been vetted through the rigorous screening process. Approximately 87% of Mexico's state and federal police have been entered into the National Police Registry.

The State Department uses these statistics in its "Mexico--Merida Initiative Report" in order to demonstrate that Mexico's police are now more "transparent" and "accountable." With the report, the State Department hopes to release the 15% of Merida Initiative funds that have been held up pending Mexico's compliance with certain conditions. In the report, the State Department implies that the firing of 284 federal police commanders and the arrest of 204 federal, state, and local public servants during the Calderon administration means that the Registry and screenings are effective tools to reduce corruption. The State Department argues that these programs constitute "concrete steps to... address issues of corruption."

The State Department report does not, however, evaluate if these measures actually have led to reduced police corruption. Mexico's daily El Universal consulted several public security experts and published their opinions on how well the Merida Initiative-funded anti-corruption vetting has worked. Their conclusion: it hasn't worked at all.


El Universal reports that President Calderon's anti-corruption campaign has put over one thousand police officers in jail since it began. "According to official information," writes El Universal, "almost every week a group of police, or at least a police force employee, is detained, brought before the authorities, or put in pre-charge detention for having links to organized crime or for operating a criminal cell."

The paper consulted imprisoned officers' families and lawyers and discovered that that majority of these detentions are due to anonymous tips or protected state's witnesses--not police screenings. It says that such is the case with 226 police who have been arrested this month for their ties to drug trafficking--screenings did not lead to single one of those arrests.

The experts consulted by El Universal explain the various shortcomings in the vetting process.

One of the most pressing issues is the high turnover on Mexican police forces--30% on average, according to National Public Security Council Executive Secretary Jorge Tello Peon. Even without such high turnover, registering and screening Mexico's 400,000 police officers is a daunting task. The 30% turnover aggravates Mexico's already limited capacity to register all of its police officers. Screening 400,000 police two times per year has thus far proven to be impossible, even without taking the turnover rate into account.

Arturo Arango, an independent consultant that helps the Federal Public Security Secretariat screen and train Federal Police, told El Universal that the screenings have thus far failed because they are "incomplete. On the one hand, they are getting rid of some bad elements. But they're leaving others who corrupt new [police]. It's like putting clean apples in a basket with bad apples."

Arango's argument against a piecemeal screening strategy alludes to a larger issue in the war on drugs as it is currently fought: as corrupt or criminal elements--even criminal masterminds--are arrested, more step up to take their place. The names and faces change, but the drug trafficking industry continues unaffected. Drug trafficking organizations' extensive criminal networks have been painstakingly documented--particularly in Ricardo Ravelo's seminal work Los Capos--and include recruiters who work in nearly every major public security agency in the country. Decades of piecemeal strategy has failed to dismantle these networks, namely because drug trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry that props up the Mexican economy (not to mention its public servants' bank accounts). On the contrary, drug traffickers' influence over Mexico has steadily increased.

Arango and public security expert Elena Azaola told El Universal that the police screening strategy needs to be completely reevaluated because the Mexican government can't handle screening all 400,000 police once, let alone twice per year as mandated by the law. "In Morelos, for example, it took us nearly four months to evaluate 2,500 police. If we wanted to screen 400,000, we'd need a school with twenty lecture halls, a thousand mobile polygraphs, and a way to get all of the police together at once, which is impossible."

The result of ongoing pervasive corruption in Mexico's police forces at all levels of government is that Mexican citizens continue to have little faith in public servants. A recent survey conducted by the Citizen Studies Institute (Icesi in its Spanish abbreviation) found that the majority of Mexicans feel unsafe in their cities and do not trust police nor the district attorney's office. The Icesi poll is more bad news for the Merida Initiative: one of its stated performance measures is the "percentage of polled Mexicans that a) have confidence in the Mexican federal police to protect them and serve the law; and b) have confidence in the Mexican federal system of justice to administer rule of law in a timely manner."

Originally published on Sept. 27 in Narco News.

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