~ This article was originally published by Pie de Página on February 5, 2016 ~
The proposal to eliminate municipal police in favor of unified state police forces as a means of preventing drug trafficking groups from infiltrating the local organizations has been around for several administrations, along with other agreements, pacts, and security proposals. In official discourse, the corruption that produces violence is concentrated at the municipal level, and the solution is to simply remove those officers from the equation. This is the piece that is missing from that story.
CARDEL, VERACRUZ.- Luis Alberto Valenzuela left his job as a paramedic and joined the municipal police to earn an additional 2,000 pesos per month over the 4,000 he received from the Red Cross. He was in love, and wanted a bit of extra income in his pocket so he could go out with his girlfriend and help his mother with bills. So he got a job with the police force in Úrsulo Galván, a municipality 10 minutes from his house. He was 28.
On January 11, 2013, at 6 in the afternoon, eight policemen from Úrsulo Galván left on a routine patrol. In the neighborhood of El Arenal they were intercepted by four state police vehicles. The state police (then called the Tactical Force) disarmed them and placed them under arrest. Since then, their fate is unknown. Luis Alberto, the youngest in the group, had been on the force only eight months. He did not yet know that he was going to be a father. His son has just turned two.
“I often wonder if it was a mistake for him to join the police… he had saved so many lives!” says his mother, Martha González.
“When it is raining, I start to think about where he might be, if he is getting wet. I don’t really know if God exists, or where God is. Sometimes I try to think that my son has gone on a vacation, as a way of calming down. It is like a slow death. I’m drugged… but with pills, nothing else mind you,” she jokes, while she takes a pill for her nerves.
The missing police were not from Galván, but from José Cardel, the municipality of 20,000 that neighbors it on the south and where—residents say—“the earth swallows people whole.”
Galván and Cardel are located in the region known as Sotavento, a place where sugar cane and fresh water abound. The Atocpan River divides the two municipalities and at the river mouth, at Playa Chachalacas, families relax and eat seafood during the day. But the hours of darkness have long since ceased to belong to night owls drinking beer. In this part of Veracruz, half an hour north of the port city, the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and more recently, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, have sowed terror in the towns.
The 16 policemen who were working for the town of Galván three years ago did so on a temporary contract. They did not receive social security, life insurance, or vacations. On each patrol, they risked their lives, and every three years, when municipal administrations changed, they risked losing their jobs. The day they left on their last patrol, they used the only truck that the municipal force owned. The group included Commander Juan Carlos Montero Parra and his second, Agustín Rivera Bonastre. This was unusual, since they always split their time, affirms Rosario Sayago Montoya, Commander Montero’s wife.
The day following the disappearance of their colleagues, the remaining police in Úrsulo Galván turned in their weapons and resigned. The mayor, Martín Verdejo, first filed a report on the disappearance of the patrol car and the weapons, and then a complaint on the disappearance of his officers. The vehicle was located near Laguna Verde, burned and with no bullet holes, fingerprints, or blood. The wives and mothers of the officers waited 15 days outside the municipal offices for a response that never came.
The loss was double for Aurora Montero, the wife of Commander Rivera: one month after the disappearance of her husband, a group of men took her younger brother, Juan José, from a gas station. The 33 year-old Juan José had accompanied her in demanding that the authorities search for the missing police. His fate is also unknown.
The women—the wives and mother of the missing police—have carried out their own investigation in place of the one that the state government has refused to do. Through the residents of El Arenal, they learned that the officers were taken by the state police. Their common sense confirms that: “If they had been confronted by criminals, they would have defended themselves and they would have died there, they weren’t idiots who would let themselves be captured and tortured… No, they gave themselves up and turned over their weapons because they deferred to a higher-ranking authority.”
They are also convinced that the mayor could have done much more in the first few days, “but he played dumb.” Same as the state and federal officials, like the ex-secretary of the state government, Gerardo Buganza, who promised to search “sky, sea, and earth” for the police, but had not even begun a search when he left his post. Or the official from the Marines who recommended that they pay children to search for the bodies in the cane fields.
“Nobody has treated us poorly, but the thing is that we have yet to receive any information about an investigation. Nobody knows anything. Nobody took them,” concludes Rosario Sayago.
The Front Lines
Last January 13, the National Conference of Governors (Conago), headed by the governor of Mexico State, Eruviel Ávila, relaunched the constitutional reform initiative that President Enrique Peña Nieto had sent to the Senate in December 2014 proposing the creation of unified state police forces that would take control of security in all the municipalities of the country. The initiative was a response to the political crisis provoked by the forced disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa in Guerrero. But in February of 2015, when the congressional period began, political priorities had shifted and the initiative remained stalled for a year, until the murder of the mayor of Temixco, Morelos, sparked renewed interest from the governors.
The main argument for centralizing the administration of public security in the states is that the municipal police are easily corrupted by criminal groups because they are on the front lines of the war between the cartels.
It is not a new idea. Since 2008, when Fernando Martí was murdered and the National Security Agreement was signed, former president Felipe Calderón considered police purges and months later proposed the creation of the Mando Único (Unified Command) that would replace more than 2,000 municipal police forces with 32 state commands. When the initiative was formalized in 2009, Calderón declared that the objective was to “ensure that, regardless of who governs or what party they belong to, all Mexicans will be protected by an honest and professional police force.”
“They make decisions based on current situations, these are political projects that attempt to find immediate solutions, but not long term answers,” says Martín Barrón, a criminology research at the National Institute of Penal Sciences.
For Barrón and other specialists, the problem is not how many police forces there are, but rather whether the ones that exist fulfill the conditions of professionalization, certification, and citizen controls that have been promised with every announcement of a police reform. Without that, there is no guarantee that state police forces will not be corrupted.
The last report from the organization Causa en Común (Common Cause) on the progress of polygraph evaluations of police around the country proves it: Veracruz was the state with the highest number of police who failed the evaluations (known as control de confianza). Of the more than 3,000 municipal police who were evaluated, 27 percent failed; but the percentage in the state police is much higher: 41 percent of the 9,600-member force failed their polygraphs.
Worst of all, in both municipal and state forces, all those who did not pass continue to work.
In the municipality of José Azueta, 200 kilometers south of Úrsulo Galván, the municipal police patrol the streets on foot because the only vehicle they have is beat up and rarely works.
José Azueta is a sugar cane municipality. During the harvest, farmers cutting paths through the cane find bodies. The stalks hide the crimes. The municipality has 44,000 residents, 47 neighborhoods, and 19 municipal police.
The only police truck is falling apart. But that is only one of the difficulties that the police face. They have not received a raise in three years and even have to pay for their own uniforms.
“The truth is, we have no support. If the mayor gets maid that I say that, he can fire me,” says the commander, who had to save his 6,000 peso monthly salary to buy a bulletproof vest that cost him 18,000 pesos. The officers pool their money to buy food, which they sometimes share with a thief or drunkard who is spending the night in the station’s holding cell—a tiny room with a mattress on the patio of the house.
The municipal police station in José Azueta is a rented house, where the officers need to use buckets to bring water to the bathrooms. The rooms do not have doors and the ceiling of the dormitory has a clothesline for laundry. In the bedrooms they sleep with their weapon at their feet and the Virgin of Guadalupe as a headboard.
In the station there is a radio operator and a cook. A third woman displays her curvy figure in a calendar that, for some reason, has not advanced past March, 2014.
In recent years, these officers have faced situations that overwhelm them easily. On occasion, they have had to barricade themselves inside the station when facing groups of armed men.
–Why are you still a cop?
–I like it, I like this kind of work.
Victims and Victimizers
The attack on the students from Ayotzinapa in Iguala, Guerrero on September 26, 2014, turned the municipal police into an emblem of the moral decay of the country’s law enforcement. The federal government’s rhetoric pinned responsibility for the forced disappearance of the 43 students solely on the municipal police of Iguala and Cocula. No state or federal officers have been detained or investigated.
But at the end of November, 2015, relatives of those who have disappeared in Guerrero were searching the hills that surround Iguala when they found a clandestine mass grave with the remains of nine people. The bodies did not seem particularly remarkable to those who discovered it since in 14 months they had found more than 130 bodies in unmarked graves. Nevertheless, these 9 bodies had a common trait: they wore the remains of municipal police uniforms.
The bodies had been buried for between two and three years, according to what investigators from the federal attorney general’s office told the group Los Otros Desaparecidos (The Other Disappeared).
“I think that (the missing municipal police) are people who at the time refused, or didn’t agree with their (the criminals’) plans,” says Carmen.
Her husband, Saturno Giles Beltrán, is a municipal police officer from Iguala assigned to stolen car recovery who has been missing since March 8, 2015.
Saturno left his house en route to the University of the Valley of Iguala, where he was studying for a bachelor’s degree in Law. And he did not return. Neither did his colleague on the municipal police force, Minael Salgado, who disappeared the following day.
The two officers disappeared while the Unified Command was in operation in Iguala. And according to an internal document from the local office of the Ministry of Public Safety (SSP) seen by Pie de Página, the agency recognizes that there are at least three other municipal officers who also disappeared.
Carmen is sure that none of the bodies found in the grave belong to her husband. First, because he was not wearing his uniform the day he disappeared. But also because the bodies were buried long before Saturno went missing.
* * *
In July of 2015, Joaquín Hernández was murdered. He was the only remaining policeman in Guadalupe, Chihuahua. He was gunned down along with his 14 year-old son a half kilometer from the U.S. border. Two weeks earlier, the municipal police chief had been beaten to death and his colleagues had resigned en masse.
In Ajuchitlán, Guerrero, 28 police officers spend their time cutting grass and tree branches.
In Matamoros, Tamaulipas, thieves, drunks, and domestic abusers walk free because since the municipal police force was dissolved, nobody bothers to attend to the low-impact crimes.
Between January and March of 2015, the police in Acapulco—the most violent city in the country—publicly protested their low salary. The images of municipal police on strike were repeated throughout the year in Nayarit, Michoacán, Chiapas, Querétaro, and Guanajuato.
And scarcely had 2016 begun when in Tres Valles, Veracruz, where more than 30 bodies were found in clandestine graves at a ranch in 2014, municipal police officers launched a protest in front of city hall because they had not yet been paid for the first two weeks of the year.
What do these police officers think when politicians say that they are the most corrupt, that they are colluding with crime?
“They, the politicians, are the ones who have truly abandoned us,” one of them responds.
José Ignacio de Alba is a self-described globetrotter and chronicler. This article was originally published by Pie de Página under the title “Policías municipales, la carne de cañón de la guerra contra el narco,” and is available at: http://piedepagina.mx/municipales.php
This work forms part of the project Pie de Página undertaken by the Red de Periodistas de a Pie.
Translation by Michael Lettieri, Trans-Border Institute.