Monday, December 27, 2010

The Old Stomping Grounds Featured in the WSJ

Via the Mexico Institute, The Wall Street Journal has a terrific dispatch from Torreón about the city's police chief Carlos Villa, and his attempts to clean up the ranks of his subordinates. Highlights:

Thanks to the army, the general now has a contingent of 60 former or active-duty soldiers. None are from Torreon. They live in the police headquarters, venturing into the city only on patrol. The general lives in a single room next to his office, with a mattress, an exercise machine and a pet boxer named Chata.

For most of the soldiers, this has been their first time in a police force. "I couldn't believe the lack of discipline," said Lt. Francisco Naranjo.

After the strike, Mr. Villa was left with about 80 police from a force of 700, mostly older officers near retirement. He and his troops went on patrol several times a day and night, often taking on traffickers. "I've seen more action now than in my entire career in the army," he says.

The police chief and mayor also set about recruiting new police. Results were mixed. One applicant had just gotten out of jail for murder.

A psychologist was hired to evaluate recruits. "Most applicants were completely unfit. They had all kinds of psychological issues, including narcissism and delusions of grandeur," says Bismark Soriano, a 26-year-old psychologist.

But then a different type of person started coming through. Hortencia Ovalle, a 36-year-old housewife, heard a radio report about the general and signed up. "I wanted to be a part of something bigger for my city," she says.

A challenge will be keeping new recruits honest. Across Mexico, cartels spend an estimated $100 million a year bribing police, according to the federal government.

One new tactic: buy a home for all beat police. If a police officer stays 15 years on the force with no issues of corruption, they get the home free. "It's a way to get the wives of the cops to make sure their husbands stay on the straight and narrow," says the mayor. The city raised salaries for police from an average of $570 a month to about $800—which puts Torreon in the top five best-paid police forces in the country. Police are also getting scholarships for their children at private schools.

That last paragraph is heartening. Mexico needs to be more creative in finding ways to incentivize loyalty among police, and this is potentially a pretty good one. The gangsters have a big advantage in that they can instill fear of life and limb in a police officer in a way that the authorities cannot, but cops' services are often being bought for a pittance, with insufficient attempts by the authorities to compete for their loyalty.

Also, I wrote about some of the things Villa is confronting here and here:
I recently mentioned that the police were on strike here in Torreón, so it was kind of surprising to see two patrol trucks outside of a convenience store by my house last night. As I walked in, a uniformed officer was joking with a kid in line next to him, which was also kind of unusual, since they are typically not particularly sociable. After he paid, just before he left the premises, he turned around he said, "We're not the same police as before. Just so you know, and so you aren't suspicious of us." I have no idea of the replacements will turn out to be more honest and effective than their predecessors, but his desire to win over the customers seemed genuine, and it was an oddly moving moment. In a lot of ways, there must be no job so depressing as that of an honest municipal police officer in northern Mexico.

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