Commentary: Latin America must police their own police

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

On a visit here, I heard about an interesting idea to help combat the wave of murders, kidnappings and other security problems that is rocking most Latin American countries — creating independent monitoring groups to scrutinize the police.

In Mexico, police corruption is an age-old problem, which has worsened with the growing wealth of the drug cartels. Many Mexicans see their police agencies as the problem, rather than the solution. Not surprisingly, an old Mexican joke says, “If you get mugged on the street, don’t yell. You may attract the police!”

But now, with the drug-related violence that has left nearly 40,000 deaths over the past five years, Mexicans are desperate for a solution to end the bloodshed. On May 8, about 70,000 people gathered in downtown Mexico City to demand an end to the drug-related violence, and the firing of Public Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, the country’s top law enforcement officer.

Much like similar marches that have taken place in recent years in Argentina, Colombia and several Central American countries, the weekend protest was led by a father whose son was killed by gunmen in a crime that drew national attention. It was a massive outburst of social frustration over the skyrocketing crime rates.

But Ernesto Lopez Portillo, head of Mexico’s Institute for Security and Democracy, argued in a thoughtful column in the daily El Universal that most of these public demonstrations will be futile unless countries create outside civilian oversight commissions to monitor police forces that often protect the criminals, or are involved in criminal actions themselves.

“There is an international consensus that insecurity and violence are due to many factors that need to be attacked in many ways. But nothing that we do to improve public security will work unless we reform our existing police institutions,” he wrote.

Lopez Portillo is proposing creation of an outside civilian monitoring group to scrutinize police forces, much like the Independent Police Complaints Commission in Great Britain, the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland, or similar groups in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami and dozens of other U.S. cities.

Curious about the idea, I asked Lopez Portillo whether that’s not already being done by many government-sanctioned independent Human Rights Commissions and People’s Advocates Offices in Latin America. Not really, he said.

Whereas Human Rights Commissions and People’s Advocates Offices can only make recommendations, independent police monitoring groups have more investigative powers — including subpoena powers in many cases — and more influence to reform police forces, he said.

“The International trend is to strengthen external controls over the police as much as possible,” he told me. “Latin America is way behind in this respect.”

According to leaders of several U.S. police monitoring groups, the secret of their success is that they are not on the payroll of police departments.

In the case of Miami, the 13-member Civilian Investigative Panel that monitors the police is an agency of the City of Miami, and can send the results of its inquiries directly to the city manager, who is in charge of the police. The Miami police monitoring agency carries out an average of 200 investigations a year, its officials say. While its opinions are not mandatory, they are often listened to, they say.

“Having subpoena power makes an important difference, because we can compel people to answer questions under oath,” says Thomas J. Rebull, a Miami attorney who heads the Civilian Investigative Panel. “When police internal affairs divisions know that somebody else is reviewing what they do, it helps keep them on their toes.”

My opinion: In the long run, reducing crime rates in Latin America — the region, according to the World Health Organization, has become one of the world’s most violent — will depend, among other things, on improving education standards, putting more criminals behind bars, and convincing the United States to reduce its drug addiction and stop the smuggling of heavy weapons to the drug cartels.

But none of this will be enough unless countries clean up corruption-ridden police forces. Creating independent police oversight commissions is an idea that Mexico and several countries in the region should seriously consider.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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