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Mexico moves to demote federal police force

Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto's plan to downsize and transfer control of the federal police raises questions about his security policies.

November 26, 2012|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Mexican President-elect Enrique Pea Nieto plans to eliminate the Public Security Ministry and transfer control of federal police to the Interior Ministry.
Mexican President-elect Enrique Pea Nieto plans to eliminate the Public… (Prensa EPN )

MEXICO CITY — Through most of the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the federal police agency has held a starring role, built to seven times its previous size and favored by American advisors and dollars despite persistent troubles and scandals.

But President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, who is meeting Tuesday with President Obama, has already demonstrated that one of his immediate actions will be to demote the police force, raising questions about his security policies at a time of heightened deadly violence across the country.

Peña Nieto takes office Saturday. Even before the inauguration, his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is pushing through the legislature a restructuring of the government that would eliminate the Public Security Ministry, home to the federal police. Control over the police would be transferred to the Interior Ministry.

At the same time, an undisclosed number of federal police would lose their jobs to downsize the agency, which has grown in Calderon's six-year term to 36,000 men and women.

U.S. officials were evidently caught off guard by the changes and have been seeking explanations from Peña Nieto's transition team, diplomatic sources said.

In Washington, U.S. officials said they were reserving judgment. "We will be looking to see what the new government will do," said Neda Brown, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

In presenting the plan to the Mexican Congress, Peña Nieto portrayed it as a way to streamline security operations, make them more efficient and improve the coordination among agencies that has been sorely lacking. He also is proposing a separate gendarmerie, details of which are still unclear. Critics accuse the incoming government of reinventing the wheel and of squandering the accumulated resources of the last six years. Some also worry about an overly powerful Interior Ministry, which past PRI governments used for political repression as well as law enforcement.

The restructuring bill passed in the lower legislative house and is expected to be debated and approved this week by the Senate, just in time for Peña Nieto to announce his Cabinet, as early as Friday.

Vetted units of the federal police have been a hallmark of U.S. efforts in working with Mexico to fight powerful drug-trafficking organizations. The federal police received a good chunk of the $1.9 billion that the U.S. government has given Mexico for the drug war since 2006, when Calderon launched a military-led offensive against cartels. Building up the police was an important partner component to the military pursuit. The U.S. has helped train about 7,000 police investigators in academies it set up in San Luis Potosi and elsewhere.

Despite all that, the force remains hobbled by corruption and poor policing skills and has been implicated in several cases of bad shootings, human rights abuse and collusion with criminals.

In one of the most notorious incidents, federal police in plainclothes and unmarked vehicles shot up a car with U.S. diplomatic plates Aug. 24, wounding two CIA operatives inside. The police and their commanders then conspired to lie about the incident, according to the federal attorney general's office. Making matters worse, top police commanders seeking to minimize the scandal fallout clashed publicly with the attorney general's office, which was attempting to prosecute the shooters.

It was not the first time the federal police, under the omnipotent direction of Genaro Garcia Luna, had bickered with other security agencies. And some analysts suggest the CIA incident may have been the final straw leading to the new government's decision.

In many ways, the creation of an uber-powerful Interior Ministry represents a throwback to the old PRI penchant for centralizing power. And subsuming the police is clearly a slap at Calderon, who has frequently cited the federal police as one of his — and his National Action Party's —most important legacies. The Public Security Ministry was created when Calderon's party, known as the PAN, first won the presidency in 2000 with Vicente Fox, ending seven decades of PRI rule.

The move by Peña Nieto was being praised in some quarters.

Raul Plascencia, president of the National Human Rights Commission, said Calderon's model simply hadn't worked.

"The crime rate is sky-high, violence by criminals is more and more notable, human rights violations have increased," he said. "Unfortunately, the expected success did not occur.... I hope that with this new [organization plan], we might have more control and greater efficiency that would allow society to return to peace and tranquillity."

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