Mexico's states are failing to reform police

Mexico’s state governments are failing to make use of federal funds to clean up the police, a telling example of the lack of coordination and follow-through that can sink well-designed plans.

As reported by Milenio, over the first half of 2013, Mexico’s 31 states plus the Federal District failed to make use of 88 percent of the federal funds available to them for vetting their police bodies. The funds were to be used on a wide range of measures, such as drug and polygraph testing. In 2012, the states neglected to spend 33 percent of the money available, essentially leaving roughly $190 million on the table.

Partially as a consequence, programs to submit state police to vetting processes are woefully behind schedule. Indeed, the information was made public by the Chamber of Deputies as the lower house issued an extension to the deadline for full vetting of the state police. While they had been required to complete the programs prior to December 29, 2013, now the states will have until October 2014.

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Because of the track record of police officers at all levels working with local criminal groups, carrying out quality control programs in both state and local police departments is considered a vitally important task. Furthermore, this is one of the few initiatives undertaken in Mexico over the past several years that directly attacks the problem. Though a single vet of all of the nation’s police would not be sufficient to make a definitive break with the longstanding patterns of corruption, it would go much further toward addressing the problem than all of the helicopters transferred in the Merida Initiative.

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This is not the first time that lawmakers have flagged problems with the state and local governments’ ability to cleanse police departments of corrupt elements. As of February 2011, just 8 percent of all state police had undergone a full evaluation of their competence and honesty. In November 2011, then-President Felipe Calderon clashed with governors whom he blamed for the slow pace of vetting. The governors responded at the time that the pace of police reform was unrealistic. However, more than two years on, the same problems remain, which suggests that an overly ambitious pace is not the only problem.

Similar examples of state and local governments failing to take advantage of federal funds made available for security issues have emerged periodically. In February of 2011, El Universal reported that a multitude of states spent less than half of their federal outlays for training of personnel and the upgrade of facilities during the prior year. Only two states spent all of their allocated money.

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These figures, and others like them, speak to two deeper interrelated problems. The first is the lack of coordination between federal and sub-national governments. There is little benefit in making new investments in the security apparatus if the agencies and governments in charge of administering the investments are not on the same page. In such cases, the money can be wasted or, as the above stories indicate, simply linger unused. But, in either case, it is of little benefit. More broadly, the presence of different governmental bodies working at cross-purposes limits their ability to accomplish such a monumental task as improving Mexico's public security.

Relatedly, the state and local governments appear to be lacking the absorptive capacity to take advantage of the hundreds of millions of dollars available to them. The federal outlays address clear defects in the sub-national governments, from outdated equipment to persistent levels of corruption. Theoretically, the federal money should allow these governments to face down criminal groups without relying on federal assistance. Yet the leaders of these governments are not able to take the basic steps to addressing these shortcomings, even when given all the money necessary to do so.

This is not a huge surprise. Over the course of seven decades under the highly centralized PRI system, there was little autonomy for state and local governments, and the effects of this approach to government remain evident today. The mere fact that local governments are so dependent on federal transfers for their revenues is a telling fact.

From the standpoint of combating multinational gangs and closing off the space in which they operate, the lack of local capacity is worrying. There will be no enduring solution to Mexico’s security ills without more capable state and local agencies. It is in everyone’s interest to reduce the reliance on federal troops -- especially the armed forces -- on Mexican streets, and the only substitute is local forces. But this lack of absorptive capacity suggests that throwing money at the problem is not a solution.