Doubts Emerge as Juarez Police Step Up, Feds Withdraw

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As federal police withdraw from the troubled Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, a newly-published report paints an alarming picture of the municipal police force as underequipped and overburdened.

In July, Mexican officials announced that the nearly 5,500 Federal Police (PF) stationed in the city would begin to withdraw in September, leaving the local police to assume greater responsibility for security. However, according to a new report authored by the San Diego-based Trans-Border Institute in partnership with a number of local NGOs and academic institutions, Ciudad Juarez’s municipal police may not be entirely up to the job.

The report, entitled “A Comprehensive Diagnosis of the Municipal Police in Ciudad Juarez,” is based on a collection of survey responses from over 2,400 of the city’s 3,146 police officers, which amounts to one of the most comprehensive independent studies of a local police force in the country. The authors asked the policemen a number of questions regarding different aspects of their work, ranging from their degree of experience to their perceptions of corruption in the department.

Their responses were far from encouraging. One of the report’s main findings is that police in Juarez feel inadequately equipped to perform their job. More than half of the police surveyed (54 percent) said they lacked the equipment necessary to perform their job. Of the equipment they do have, half claimed that its quality was “bad” (33 percent) or “very bad” (17 percent). The report also portrays an inexperienced police force, with nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents having been in the job for less than three years.

In the years since Mexican President Felipe Calderon began his trademark crackdown on drug trafficking, Ciudad Juarez has earned a reputation as “the murder capital of the world” and “ground zero” for the country’s drug war. But things have changed for the violent border city this year. While Juarez is still one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, the city is on pace to be significantly less violent in 2011 than the previous year. In fact, in May the city recorded a two-year low in homicides.

Still, the Juarez municipal police have a history of corruption, and it will take more than a reduction in homicides to instill public faith in the force. Retired Colonel Julian Leyzaola, the city’s controversial new police commander, has tackled this problem by purging officers suspected of links to organized crime. Since taking office in March, Leyzaola has fired some 160 officers from the force over corruption allegations, and in June the police chief estimated that at least 400 more will be dismissed by the end of the year. According to him, nearly a quarter of the city’s police force is on the payroll of local drug cartels.

But perhaps the most overlooked problem that the police force faces in the coming months is the simple issue of competence. Unfortunately, the Trans-Border Institute study suggests that local police will face a steep learning curve with the withdrawal of the federal police.

Around 4,000 federal police are expected to vacate the city over the next five months, meaning that the city will see a 46 percent drop in police presence. This will mean that the city police will, come March, take on a much greater role in making arrests and investigating crimes. However, a look at the survey shows that 46 of respondents did not think that they had been given adequate training in the investigative duties of municipal police. What’s more, 36 percent disagreed with the statement that they had been trained in the proper treatment of a crime scene.

It should be noted that the city will not be entirely dependent on its municipal police. Around 1,500 federal special officers will remain in the city after the March deadline, and the Juarez Federal Police Command Center will remain open. Additionally, the armed forces will continue to conduct preventative patrols in the city, as they have for the past several years.

But as the city transfers more of its policing to local authorities, it remains to be seen how much energy and resources it will take to professionalize the police force.

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