An incident occurred in late May, in Tijuana, that I chose not to comment on at the time because I was just frustrated by the news. I'd heard these stories so many times before, and I thought, christ almighty, do we have to read about this again?
The reality is, yes, we do: 15 police officers in Tijuana, after arresting a man and a woman for possession of drugs, forced the woman to do a striptease in exchange for her freedom.
This is obviously a terrible example of abuse of power. But also, it highlights what is horribly wrong with the Mexican police system, at its core. Most of these cops do not get paid well, we know that. Nor are they very well-educated. Nor do they receive praise for work well done – ie, a bust of people in possession of drugs. Nor do they have the ingrained sense of integrity that, say, a Chicago street cop has. So what do they do when they see a situation they can exploit? They exploit it.
This isn't the first time we've seen stories like this, obviously. The one that springs to mind always when these issues come up is that of Victor Gerardo Garay, the AFI commander who was plucked by the DEA as a man to make things happen. Garay was fed intel by his US counterparts, was lauded within the AFI, was a right-hand man of Genaro Garcia Luna's. He made some major arrests – including the takedown of some of the Arellano Felix brothers. Then he made a major bust – a bunch of Colombian narcos with strippers, hookers, cocaine etc at a narco-mansion in Desierto de los Leones.
Did he get a medal for his efforts? A pay raise? A ceremony in Los Pinos? No. Instead, he and his men threw themselves a roaring party the night of the bust, taking advantage of the hookers and cocaine they had seized earlier in the day.
Herein lies one of the most serious problems in the war on drugs in countries like Mexico, where integrity is a novel concept to most police officers (and I don't mean that as a blanket insult, but it is true that integrity does not flow in the veins of most cops in the developing world. Even the US has its serious corruption issues.) Garay and his men knew something when they made the bust at the narco-mansion: they knew that making the bust would put their lives in serious danger, more danger than ever. They knew that night might be their last. They had a perfect right to blow off some steam. The problem is that they had no idea how to do it correctly; worse, they did not seem to care. Their supervisors should have promised them something – a raise, a bonus, some sort of recognition (even if only in private) to make sure they felt proud enough of their achievement to carry on to the next day's challenges.
But no. When a Mexican cop makes a big bust, he doesn't get a medal. He doesn't meet the president. He almost always gets tarnished in the media as corrupt (after all, how could he have gotten the narco if he wasn't in the pockets of a rival narco?) and his potentially good name is slandered/libeled. I don't know the stats, but I would be willing to bet that a good number of good cops lose their marriages as a result of their work, too. So there's really no reward for doing your job well except for the rewards you give yourself.
Police reform needs to go further than just bettering the police force capacity to coordinate, to filter intel, to pursue suspects. It requires a conscious effort on the part of the authorities, the powers that be, to ingrain within the police corps a sense of honor, of duty, and to also reward those who stand out in their accomplishments with something, anything. Invite them to Washington for special training. Give them a grant to further their education. Pay them bonuses. Give them something, or they will continue to reward themselves however they see fit at the time. And that won't likely be something we want to read about or hear about.