This Ci­ty In Me­xi­co Trusts Po­li­ce


MORELIA, Me­xi­co — Mar­ce­la Muñoz, a po­li­ce of­fi­cer, ap­proa­ched wa­ry re­si­dents gathe­red on a si­de­walk of a midd­le- class neigh­borhood he­re with an unusu­al mis­si­on: to lis­ten.

“So, what’s go­ing on?” Of­fi­cer Muñoz as­ked mo­re than 20 peop­le who had be­en in­vi­ted to meet with her. Over the next hour, as each step­ped for­ward with con­cerns li­ke drug peddling in the area, and van­da­li­zing and drin­king on pu­b­lic pro­per­ty, she wro­te down their grie­van­ces. By the time she left, with a pro­mi­se to send mo­re pa­trol cars to the area, she had ear­ned ap­plau­se and an in­vi­ta­ti­on to co­me back for ta­ma­les.

“We are he­re to help,” she said, ur­ging the crowd to stay in touch via a Whats­App group chat.

In Me­xi­co, the po­li­ce, of­ten po­or­ly paid and po­or­ly trai­ned, are fre­quent­ly mi­s­trusted or fea­red. The po­pu­la­ti­on sees them not on­ly as in­ca­pa­ble of tack­ling the coun­try’s vio­lence, but al­so as of­ten being its cau­se — at best, com­pli­cit in rou­ti­ne in­frac­tions li­ke de­man­ding bri­bes at traf­fic stops, and at worst, co- op­ted by cri­mi­nal gangs. This is par­ti­cu­lar­ly evi­dent in the sta­te of Mi­choacán, the cen­ter of the na­ti­on’s drug war.

Ms. Muñoz’s mee­ting was part of an ef­fort by Ber­nar­do León, a pro­fes­sor and wri­ter tur­ned po­li­ce com­man­der, to trans­form Morelia’s po­li­ce of­fi­cers in­to a qua­li­fied force that is wel­co­med by re­si­dents.

Th­ree ye­ars in­to the ef­fort, the pro­gram has shown re­sults. In 2017, the dead­liest ye­ar in Me­xi­co in de­ca­des, the num­ber of de­aths al­so went up in Mi­choacán. But in Morelia, the sta­te’s ca­pi­tal, the num­ber of ho­mi­ci­des fell 18 per­cent com­pa­red with the ye­ar be­fo­re. Ex­perts ar­gue that Morelia’s ex­pe­ri­ment with com­mu­ni­ty po­li­cing should be part of a broa­der na­tio­nal stra­te­gy.

Em­ble­ma­tic ca­ses li­ke the 2014 disap­pearan­ce of 43 stu­dents who we­re at­ta­cked by po­li­ce of­fi­cers con­nec­ted to a drug gang ha­ve trau­ma­ti­zed Me­xi­cans and scar­red their image of law en­force­ment.

A lo­cal po­li­ce force li­ke Morelia’s “can’t re­al­ly sol­ve the car­tel si­tua­ti­on,” said Mr. León, who was ap­poin­ted to the po­si­ti­on in 2015. “What we can do is de­al with the is­su­es that re­gu­lar folks face every day.”

Mr. León re­crui­ted psy­cho­lo­gists, la­wy­ers and so­ci­al workers to me­dia­te con­flict. He al­so in­au­gu­ra­ted vic­tims’ cen­ters that of­fer me­di­cal and psy­cho­lo­gi­cal as­sis­tan­ce. Of­fi­cer Muñoz di­rects the cen­ters, whe­re wo­men ma­ke up ne­ar­ly half her staff. Vic­tims of do­mestic abu­se feel mo­re com­for­ta­ble tal­king with other wo­men .

r. León in­tro­du­ced new ci­vil courts for mis­de­mea­nors. The­re, ci­ti­zens char­ged with non­cri­mi­nal of­fen­ses can pay fi­nes and re­cei­ve sen­ten­ces that in­clu­de per­for­ming com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice or at­ten­ding Al­co­ho­lics An­ony­mous mee­tings.

But per­haps most si­gni­fi­cant, he of­fe­red ci­ti­zens the pos­si­bi­li­ty of filing their cri­mi­nal com­plaints to the re­spon­ding of­fi­cer ins­tead of ha­ving to go to the lo­cal pro­se­cu­tor, a step that de­ters ma­ny from re­porting cri­mes. Ac­cor­ding to the go­vern­ment, 92 per­cent of cri­mes go un­re­por­ted in Me­xi­co, but the num­ber of cri­mes re­por­ted to the po­li­ce in Morelia soa­red to over 5,000 in 2017, up from 435 in the pre­vious ye­ar.

Mr. León tap­ped a fe­deral fund to in­crea­se the force to 614 of­fi­cers, from 120, and to of­fer be­ne­fits. But he did not ha­ve the mo­ney to rai­se sala­ries, which start at $500 a month.

So­me ex­perts ar­gue that part of Morelia’s suc­cess stems from the mi­li­ta­ry’s ro­le in shiel­ding the ci­ty from power­ful drug gangs. The ope­ra­ti­on was ex­pan­ded the ye­ar be­fo­re Mr. León was ap­poin­ted.

“Most po­li­ce chiefs in­herit lar­ge forces ridd­led with si­gni­fi­cant pro­blems, ma­ny of them al­re­a­dy wor­king for lo­cal drug gangs,” said Edu­ar­do Gu­er­re­ro, a Me­xi­co Ci­ty se­cu­ri­ty ana­lyst. “Morelia is not Me­xi­co.”

Still, the po­li­ce of­fi­cers re­main de­ter­mi­ned. When Jes­si­ca Gu­tiér­rez told her fa­mi­ly she wan­ted to at­tend the po­li­ce aca­de­my, they re­jec­ted and ri­di­cu­led the idea, she said.

“Now they call me all the time to help them sort out all kinds of pro­blems,” said Of­fi­cer Gu­tiér­rez, a 26-ye­ar- old psy­cho­lo­gist. “I rea­li­zed if I can chan­ge my own fa­mi­ly’s per­spec­tive, I can chan­ge that of the rest of so­cie­ty.”


Com­mu­ni­ty po­li­cing has be­en wel­co­med by re­si­dents in Morelia, Me­xi­co. In other ci­ties, the po­li­ce are fea­red. Pro­vi­ding di­rec­tions.

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