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Police Reform in Mexico: The Challenge of Institutional Change

By Julia Yansura
June 21, 2012

Consistency and good governance, particularly in mid-level command, are key to police reform in Mexico, according to Daniel Sabet, director of the Center for Enterprise and Society at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

Sabet introduced the findings of his new book, Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change on June 22 at the Inter-American Dialogue. Eric Olson, associate director at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center, contributed to the discussion, which was jointly sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Sabet’s analysis of municipal police forces in Chihuahua, Hermosillo, Mexicali, and Tijuana sought to explain why a decade and a half of reform efforts failed to produce a more honest, effective police force that protects human rights.

Many reform efforts have failed because they were overly idealistic. Often, reformers focused more on policy design than on actual implementation and institutionalization.  “The devil is in the implementation process,” Sabet argued.  

Another issue in reform efforts is consistency. Police reforms in Mexico have abruptly shifted course, often lasting only as long as the current political administration. In fact, the Chihuahua municipal police force has been far more effective than other police departments in the region precisely because of the continuity of its policies and leadership across governments. According to Sabet, police reform is an unglamorous process that occurs by “working with what you have, creating good incentives, and muddling through.”

Sabet presented three main approaches to police reform in Mexico: limited discretion, militarization, and professionalization. Limiting the role of the police is problematic, particularly in the presence of serious security issues, such as drug trafficking violence. Militarization carries its own risks with regards to citizen accountability and human rights, and in addition, it often fails to affect mid- and lower-level police. Professionalization, or making police worthy of the authority they need to be effective, is the most promising approach, Sabet argued. Merit pay, rigorous selection, training, and accountability are all important aspects of this approach. 

Citizen involvement is another critical aspect of police reform efforts, Olson added. The current relationship between police and society can be thought of as a vicious cycle. Police ineffectiveness and corruption make Mexican citizens less likely to report crimes or to vote for tax increases for police funding. Without citizen engagement, support, and accountability, police performance further declines. “It’s hard to imagine how to fight crime when citizens are not participating in that process,” Olson underscored.