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Mexico: Overhaul Police Forces

Protests Highlight Abuse, Impunity, Corruption, Lack of Training

Young people march in Guadalajara, Jalisco on June 6, 2020 to protest the May 4 killing of Giovanni López after he was arrested in Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos, Jalisco, allegedly for not wearing a mask. © 2020 GDA via AP Images

(Washington, DC) – Recent police abuses across Mexico should be a wake-up call to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to lead a national process to professionalize police forces and hold them accountable, Human Rights Watch said today.

In June 2020, protesters gathered in cities across Mexico in response to a series of high-profile killings of unarmed civilians by local and municipal police. In some cases, the authorities beat and detained protesters.

“Mexico’s police forces are infamous for their corruption, their use of torture and violence, and their ties to organized crime,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “These protests, which echo the global wave of outrage sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in the US, also express the profound and longstanding mistrust and frustration that many Mexicans feel toward their abusive police forces.”

The protests began after a video circulated on social media showing the violent arrest of a 30-year-old construction worker, Giovanni López Ramírez, who later died in police custody. López Ramírez was detained in early May in the small town of Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, allegedly for not wearing a mask – a requirement under state pandemic measures.

His story came out in a news interview in early June, in which López Ramírez’s aunt and brother said that when they went to pick him up from the police station the day after his arrest, they were directed to the morgue. They found López Ramírez’s body there, covered in bruises and with a bullet in his leg. Officials told them that the police had “gotten carried away.” López Ramírez’s brother also told reporters that the local municipal president had offered the family the equivalent of US$10,000 not to share the story and threatened to kill them if they did. 

Protests erupted in the state capital, Guadalajara, and across the country. Protesters broke down the doors of the state capitol building, torched police cars, and set fire to a police officer. In response, plainclothes officers in unmarked pickup trucks armed with sticks and baseball bats threatened and detained protesters. A representative from the Guadalajara human rights group Justice Center for Peace and Development (Centro de Justicia para la Paz y el Desarrollo) told Human Rights Watch that the plainclothes police officers forced protesters into the backs of trucks and vans and abandoned them in a rural area outside the city. Protesters later told reporters that the officers beat them until they lost consciousness.

Jalisco Governor Enrique Alfaro claimed that opposition parties had organized the protests and that the orders to the police to crack down on protesters came not from his office but from criminal cartels, suggesting that the state police are not under his control.

A number of recent killings of civilians by police came to light. In Tijuana, Baja California, Yair López Jiménez died from asphyxiation while being arrested. A video of the incident shows a police officer placing his boot on López Jiménez’s neck until he lost consciousness. In Xalapa, Veracruz, Carlos Andrés Navarro died after being detained. His official cause of death was listed as a heart attack, but his family says he was beaten to death and the National Human Rights Commission has called for an investigation. In Oaxaca, 16-year-old Alexander Martínez went to run an errand for his mother and was shot dead by a police officer who allegedly confused him with someone else.

In Mexico, death at the hands of police, arbitrary detention, torture in police custody, and cooperation between police and criminal cartels occur regularly. In the most recent survey of detained people conducted by Mexico’s statistical agency INEGI, nearly two thirds had been beaten or hit during arrest, more than a third were choked or waterboarded, and a fifth were given electric shocks. In nearly half of the cases, the person carrying out the arrest did not identify as a law enforcement official and in a fifth of cases the suspect was detained without a warrant and taken to a private, undisclosed location instead of a police station. 

Police brutality has not led to a reduction in crime. Over the past decade, violent crime has skyrocketed in Mexico with near total impunity.

The abusive behavior of Mexico’s police forces is the result of multiple factors, including systematic impunity, lack of clarity and enforcement around regulations limiting police use of force, widespread corruption and intimidation by organized crime, and decades of institutional abandonment, Human Rights Watch said.

Nearly all crimes go unreported, uninvestigated, and unpunished in Mexico. According to the nongovernmental group Zero Impunity (Impunidad Cero), Mexican authorities resolve only about 1 percent of crimes, including police abuses. The authorities have been frequently exposed for trying to cover up or obstruct investigation into abuses that are reported. There is no official statistic for people killed by police every year in Mexico.

Another factor contributing to abuses is lack of clarity and enforcement of rules regulating the use of force. While Mexico passed a new national Law on the Use of Force in 2019, state and local authorities have done little to carry it out with protocols or concrete guidelines.

Corruption, intimidation, and poor labor conditions also play an important role in the abusive behavior of Mexico’s police forces. About a third of Mexico City police and 10 percent nationwide report that their superiors force them to pay “quotas” (illegal dues), according to Common Cause (Causa en Común), a group that evaluates police training and performance. Those who refuse to pay can be denied promotions, training, and access to equipment, or forced to work longer or more dangerous shifts. A third of police officers report working 24-hour shifts.

Many police officers receive threats and payoffs from organized crime groups, a police reform researcher from the World Justice Project told Human Rights Watch. Additionally, according to Causa en Común, 450 police officers are killed every year in Mexico, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work in law enforcement. As a result of these factors, turnover is extremely high. Many officers last just a year or two, according to a World Justice Project researcher, making it difficult for local police forces to meet training and development requirements.

The institutional abandonment of the police by Mexican authorities compounds the problem. The director of Causa en Común told Human Rights Watch that not a single Mexican police force meets with the minimum requirements for training and development under Mexican law. Many police never receive training on how to detain a suspect, conduct an interview, preserve a crime scene, use their weapons, or attend to victims.

One fifth have received no training at all, according to a study conducted by INEGI, and two fifths in some municipal police departments. In three states: Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, and Campeche, half of police have been given a gun but not trained to use it. Nationwide, around half of police are forced to pay for at least some of their own equipment.

In addition, a portion of the police force in many places is not formally employed by the department, which Causa en Común says makes it harder to hold officers accountable for abuse. In the town where Giovanni López Ramírez was detained, 21 of the 52 municipal police officers were not formally employed as such. As a result, no one knows how many police officers there are in Mexico.

Instead of tackling these problems head-on, for years, Mexican leaders have simply transferred funding and responsibility from civilian law enforcement to the military. That has compounded the problem, with soldiers implicated in countless atrocities. Despite years of promises to improve police performance, the Mexican government has not followed through.

President López Obrador has continued the practices of his predecessors, placing more responsibility in the hands of the military. In 2018 he eliminated the civilian Federal Police and replaced it with the National Guard, a military body created to conduct civilian law enforcement. His administration also cut funding for the Executive Secretary of the National Public Safety System (SESNSP), the federal body charged with monitoring training and development of state and local police forces, by 75 percent earlier this year as part of Covid-19-related budget cuts.

President López Obrador should spearhead a serious effort to overhaul Mexico’s police forces to create effective accountability systems, Human Rights Watch said. The reform should focus on enforcing limits on police use of force; investigating and breaking up corrupt networks; reviewing laws, policies, and practices that create opportunities and incentives for abuse and corruption; and providing meaningful training and professionalization of the police. The SESNSP should develop a comprehensive system to evaluate the compliance of state and local police forces with training and development requirements.

“President López Obrador came to office promising a transformation of public life in Mexico,” Vivanco said. “He should start by transforming the police.”

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