Mexico’s main presidential candidates have all embraced longstanding proposals to unite municipal police forces under a single command, but such a fix could actually make it harder for police to fight increasingly localized criminal groups.
The so-called “mando unico,” or single command, is one of the few proposals upon which each of the four main candidates for the Mexican presidency agree. There are different variations on the plan, but they generally call for the abolition of the municipal police forces, and their replacement either by enlarged state police forces or by a new national force. For instance, President Felipe Calderon, for whom the mando unico has long been a pet proposal, calls for enlarged state forces, while the presidential candidates all favor a national force.
Certainly, the mando unico has logic behind it. Mexico’s municipal police forces are widely considered to be the most corrupt bodies in the country, and they represent one of the biggest barriers to a more effective criminal justice system. Examples of municipal police corruption are legion, with local officers either looking the other way or actively working with criminal bosses. Mass firings are a common occurrence. Moreover, several countries — including Colombia, whose criminal justice system has emerged as a model for Latin American nations — have relied on a national police force to improve public security.
The mando unico would also allow for a greater degree of coordination between the different police bodies. Under the current system, the lack of cooperation between municipal departments and between the different levels of government has often impeded efforts to crack down on criminal groups and to effectively mobilize resources.
But there is reason to doubt that the mando unico is the magic bullet that would finally put Mexico on the right path. One is historical: Mexico has engineered countless police reorganizations over the years, creating and then abolishing the Federal Investigative Agency, the Federal Judicial Police, and the Federal Security Directorate, among others.
These reforms were carried out with the aim of combating endemic corruption. None succeeded. There is, therefore, no reason to think that establishing a mando unico would solve a problem that has existed for decades.
Furthermore, as security analyst Alejandro Hope told InSight Crime, the mando unico does nothing to address some of the most significant barriers to a more effective municipal police. These include a shortage of funds, and a lack of manpower at the municipal level, which means that in many towns police are outnumbered by criminals. Merely turning municipal police forces into a centralized national force would not put more cops on the beat in any given street corner, nor does it increase the budget so that officers are better trained and equipped with better weapons.
Hope points out that the creation of a single police force would have the unfortunate effect of creating a single target for corruption. In contrast, when there are various police agencies with overlapping responsibilities, each department can keep an eye on the others, creating a built-in check on corruption. From the criminal’s standpoint, the existence of multiple police organizations also makes it harder to know where government pressure might come from, and respond accordingly.
And while some countries like Colombia, Chile, and Italy have effective national police organizations, in other countries, like Guatemala, such bodies have been a disaster. Meanwhile some nations, such as the US and especially the United Kingdom, have maintained effective municipal police bodies and an enviable public security record despite the absence of a national police force.
Many of Mexico’s organized crime groups have shifted toward a more localized modus operandi in recent years, with gangs like the Zetas and the Familia Michoacana extracting a greater proportion of their revenue from the local population, through activities like extortion and retail drug sales. This has helped drive a recent upsurge of regional gangs, like Acapulco’s La Barredora, a phenomenon noted by InSight Crime. The increased presence of this type of gang points to the ongoing need for strong municipal forces, locally identified and with strong ties to the communities they serve.
While such a model is not incompatible with a more centralized state or a national force under a mando unico, there is a conflict between the two goals, one that policy-makers and presidential candidates alike would be wise not to ignore.