Amid protests and rampant crime, Mexico struggles to get nearly 2,000 police forces under control

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Rolando Bañuelo, a 33-year-old member of Mexico’s Federal Police, cradled his machine gun on his lap, as his patrol-mate, Miguel, drove their police truck down a narrow stretch of road in Colosio, one of the most problematic neighborhoods in one of Mexico’s most violent cities, Acapulco.

Far from the well-patrolled tourist area of beachfront hotels, high in the densely-populated shanty towns above the beaches, residents face the ever-present threat of violent crime.

More than three dozen people have been killed in Acapulco during the month of December, four murdered on Christmas day alone. On Dec. 28, the body of an 18-year-old man was found in the trunk of a car. He had been beaten and strangled.

As Miguel eased the truck around a corner, explained the profile of potential threats the police keep an eye out for. “We look for men riding together in cars with tinted windows,” Rolando said.

In early December, Mexico sent 1,600 Federal Police officers to secure Acapulco’s tourist districts and to prevent violent crime in the city’s shanty towns during the holiday season, a critical time of the year for Acapulco’s tourist trade.

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Mexico’s Federal Police Chief, Enrique Galindo, spoke to Fox News Latino while he visited Acapulco as part of an operation in early December.

“Crime is an issue of perception,” he said. “Two or three years ago Acapulco had a security crisis. Now it’s not like that. We’ve taken apart the two major organized crime groups that were here. Now it’s low-impact crime.”

Acapulco is the largest city in the troubled state of Guerrero, where 43 students disappeared in late September after they were detained by municipal police in the town of Iguala, about two hours from this beach resort.

The state, indeed the entire country, has been rocked by protests in the months that followed, and Acapulco hasn’t gone unaffected. A November protest closed the international airport and practically shut down the tourism business during a national holiday.

But demonstrations are far from the only problem plaguing Acapulco. While the city  is no longer a major battleground for cartels fighting for territory, it still experiences high levels of violent crime, extortion and kidnapping. Rather than working as hired guns for major trafficking groups, local thugs, many of whom are still in high school, are targeting residents.

“They are freelancing,” Galindo said.

Samuel, a 34-year-old financial consultant and former Acapulco bar owner, said he views the arrival of more Federal Police as positive. He told FNL, “It’s probably better with the police. A few years ago there were shootouts right in the street in front of restaurants. Now it’s better, but it’s a smokescreen. The poorer areas are still bad.”

Samuel closed his bar in 2011 after criminals started targeting his waitresses.

News coverage of the role of corrupt local police officers in Iguala shifted attention away from Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s economic reform agenda to security.

Questions about collusion between municipal police and drug cartel henchmen, and the possible complicity of Mexico’s army and Federal Police, have fueled a debate about whether Mexico’s local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies are capable of—or willing to—effectively provide security in a context defined by a weak judicial system, high levels of impunity and organized crime financed corruption.

If local police forces are co-opted by criminal groups, residents are left without recourse.  In Acapulco, the local police are clearly unable to guarantee security for residents. The arrival of the Federal Police, although positive, hasn’t stopped the violence in the hills either.

Adam Isaacson, a security expert from the Washington Office on Latin America, told FNL that the surge of Federal Police in Acapulco “is not a permanent solution. It’s a preventative stopgap. They are there to carry out patrols but community policing, investigations, that’s not going to be up to the Federal Police.”

Acapulco, and more broadly, the state of Guerrero, needs effective local and state police that can combat and dismantle extortion and kidnapping rackets without being corrupted or co-opted.

Police reform

During a speech in late November Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto addressed the issue of crime and local police forces. He said, “With the issue of fighting local drug dealers the efficacy of the Mexican state has been minimal… This implies [that we need to] create a new model of policing.”

Peña Nieto has proposed eliminating Mexico’s 1,800 municipal police forces and instituting new state-level forces that answer to governors rather than mayors.  It’s a model that has been implemented effectively with the Fuerza Civil in Nuevo León, Mexico’s wealthiest state.

The new force has led to a dramatic decline in homicides, shootouts and kidnappings in the state.

But it’s not clear if that tactic will work in poorer states such as Guerrero, where the majority of residents live in poverty and work in the informal sector of the economy.

In Guerrero many towns have banded together to form citizen police forces rather than rely on the state to provide security.

In Michoacán, the state that borders Guerrero to the north and west, Peña Nieto tried to institutionalize local groups of “autodefensa” vigilantes into a new uniformed Fuerza Rural state police force.

The Fuerza Rural has been damaged by infighting among members, mass desertions and allegations of ties to drug gangs. After the Federal Police move on to new assignments, locals in Acapulco will once again be searching for a solution to the problem of crime.

Galindo explained, “Security is a process. You have to build institutions. It takes time to consolidate.”

The road ahead

Although there is broad consensus that police and judicial reforms are badly needed, it’s not clear what model will work best in places such as Guerrero.

Mexico City-based security expert Brian Phillips told FNL, “Guerrero has a long history of weak institutions and marginalized citizens who demand better. There are no easy answers for places like Guerrero, but corruption needs to be addressed.”

He added, “It’s not clear that the national-level changes [such as the new federal Gendarmerie police force] or what worked in Nuevo León or elsewhere, will work in Guerrero.”

Although protesters were relatively quiet in the days leading up to Christmas the marches and the calls for “justicia” will carry over into 2015. Recent polls, however, show that although 46 percent of Mexicans approve of the protests, only 16 percent think they will help bring justice for the 43 missing student teachers from Ayotzinapa.

In a recent speech, Mexican historian Enrique Krauze said, “Protest is important, but it has to be followed with proposals. [We need] independent judges and police who fight crime in a professional manner… That’s the Mexico we need to build in the 21st century.”