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Police testing in Mexico inspires little confidence

The system for vetting cops to determine good guy from bad is rife with problems. Officers as well as human rights groups are angry.

May 08, 2013|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
  • A police officer patrols in downtown Zapopan, outside Guadalajara, Mexico. The mayor's office there recently learned that of the roughly 1,600 police officers who had taken a trustworthiness test, 389 had failed.
A police officer patrols in downtown Zapopan, outside Guadalajara, Mexico.… (Richard Fausset / Los Angeles…)

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Guadalajara police commander Juan Carlos Martinez took Mexico's national police vetting exam in April 2012. He failed. But no one in government would tell him why.

A few months later, he received a phone call from a man identifying himself as a member of a drug cartel. Why don't you think about joining us, he said the man on the phone asked. You won't go hungry.

Martinez, 38, declined the offer and maintains that he had been an honorable cop.

But the phone call was not an anomaly. Here in the state of Jalisco, the cartels have tried to lure ex-cops with online recruitment ads. In the northern state of Coahuila, they put up posters.

It is just one of the challenges Mexico faces as it struggles to deep-clean its troubled police forces, relying on an ambitious control de confianza, or confidence control, test that aims to ensure every officer's aptitude and trustworthiness. It's an effort likely to face changes under the country's new government.

The concept was spelled out in a 2009 law promoted by then-President Felipe Calderon: Every Mexican officer would be subject to a battery of psychological, drug and polygraph tests as well as a home visit to identify those living beyond their means. Officers who failed would be fired. New recruits who took their places would be tested as well, and all would be retested regularly.

Calderon viewed it as a way to finally establish a clear line between good and bad guys in a country where officers are often feared and despised for abuses of power and ties to the cartels.

“It's impossible to leave the fox inside the henhouse,” he told a group of governors in 2011. The plan was also supported by the U.S. government, which contributed money and expertise.

But four years into the process, many are instead losing confidence in the test. Its administrators have been criticized for an over-reliance on polygraph exams that are sometimes administered in a sloppy, unprofessional way that may lead to false positives.

Some observers of Mexico's judicial reform movement are concerned that the testing program deprives officers of due-process rights. In Jalisco, critics worry that the evaluations are being used to settle political scores. Meanwhile, many state and municipal governments have been slow to administer the test and often decline to fire cops who fail.

Mexico missed its self-imposed deadline of January for testing all officers. Though every federal cop has taken the exam, fewer than half of the nation's 515,000 state and municipal police had been tested as of February, according to federal data obtained by the Mexican nonprofit Common Cause. The group predicts that a revised October deadline will also not be met.

Among other things, testing centers lack enough qualified personnel to evaluate the tens of thousands of remaining officers. And in states such as Oaxaca, many communities follow special indigenous laws and often disregard federal mandates.

Nationally, fewer than one-third of the 36,000 police who have failed the test have been fired. Some officials have said they don't have funds for severance pay, and some police are challenging their dismissal in court.

Salvador Caro Cabrera, a Guadalajara councilman and former member of Congress, suspects that some state and local officials may be in cahoots with dirty officers and unwilling to let them go.

Adjacent to Guadalajara, in a sprawling municipality called Zapopan, Mayor Hector Robles has floated the idea of granting some failed cops micro-loans to help start small businesses, giving them an alternative to joining the drug gangs.

“You can't toss these police out in the streets the day after they fail,” Caro said. “Maybe in other countries that works, but here in Mexico, you can't do it.”

Adjustments to the process seem likely under new President Enrique Peña Nieto, who plans a broad overhaul of the Calderon security strategy. Last month, a member of his Institutional Revolutionary Party introduced a bill that would ensure that police aren't fired solely on polygraph results.

At a recent news conference, Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam bemoaned the loss of some “good police” and said that the system would be revised, though he did not spell out details.

This week, the governor of Guanajuato state, Miguel Marquez, told reporters that it was his expectation, based on conversations with the attorney general, that the government would soon drop polygraph tests from the control de confianza process for low-level officers, because it made them “nervous” and resulted in false positives.

Murillo issued what appeared to be criticism of U.S. involvement in the program: “We let ourselves be guided by the values of other latitudes, other countries.”

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