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.