Sunday, August 24, 2008

MEXICO: Anti-Crime Pledges - This Time with Teeth?

by Diego Cevallos In response to the growing public outcry over Mexico’s soaring crime rates, the president, state governors, lawmakers and judges agreed to a broad new anti-crime plan, characterised by a number of old promises, but also by one novel aspect: precise timeframes, targets and follow-up mechanisms. If the plan announced Thursday night by President Felipe Calderón fails, "the little credibility that the authorities still have with respect to their ability to fight crime will go up in smoke, and support for the democratic system will decline," Guillermo Zepeda, an expert on security issues, told IPS. The new plan that emerged from Thursday’s high-profile day-long anti-crime summit includes pledges of passing new legislation, investigating and purging all of the country’s police forces over the next year, undertaking intelligence actions, building new high security prisons and creating new mechanisms to encourage Mexicans to report crimes, such as anonymous hotlines. Most of the several dozen specific actions encompassed by the plan are repeats of earlier promises, with the difference that this time they have all been brought together in a single document and agreed on by governors, mayors and legislators from a range of political parties, who set aside their differences for one day to discuss possible solutions to the pressing problem. Even leftist Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard showed up, for the first time taking part in a meeting along with Calderón. Since he took office in December 2006, the mayor has refused any contact with the conservative president, on the argument that fraud was committed in the July 2006 presidential elections. One of the novelties of the document signed Thursday was the creation of a citizen’s observatory to monitor law enforcement efforts. Another was the authorities’ promise to meet again in 30 days to carry out the first follow-up on the plan. And in a third meeting to take place 100 days from now, academic institutions will be invited to report their own evaluation of the government’s compliance with the measures and targets. "Society might give the authorities the benefit of the doubt, even though the state’s response is tardy and reactive," said Zepeda, with the Centre of Research for Development (CIDAC). According to official statistics, 256 crimes an hour are committed in Mexico, 98 percent of which go unclarified and unpunished due to corruption and ineffective law enforcement efforts by the police, investigators and judges, and because only a tiny proportion of victims dare or bother to report crimes. The current crime rates are the highest ever recorded in the history of this country of 104 million people. Since the start of the Calderón administration in December 2006, 4,800 drug-related murders have been committed, compared to 9,000 in the 2000-2006 term of his predecessor Vicente Fox, who also belonged to the National Action Party (PAN). Added to the growing number of murders are constant reports of kidnappings, rapes and robberies, and no one bats an eye when it is reported that police officers were involved. A recent case that brought public outrage to a boiling point was the kidnapping and murder, apparently with police involvement, of the 14-year-old son of a prominent businessman, Alejandro Martí. After the boy’s body was found on Aug. 1, public fury grew and grew, until a massive anti-crime march was announced for Aug. 30. "The Martí case revived society’s indignation and ability to be shocked, because we were getting used to the violence, remaining unperturbed in the face of so many crimes," said Zepeda. The Aug. 30 march in the capital and other cities was announced by civic groups mainly linked to the business sector, but a growing number of trade unions, community associations and other organisations have decided to take part. The protesters, expected to number in the hundreds of thousands, will dress in white and carry candles. Martí, who addressed Thursday’s meeting, told the authorities they should quit if they think they will be unable to curb the country’s high crime rates. "If you can't do it, quit, don't continue to occupy government offices, don't continue drawing salaries for not doing anything; that is also a form of corruption," said the businessman. Calderón said the proliferation of crime in Mexico "cannot be understood without taking into account the cover provided for so many years by impunity". Zepeda, who coordinated a broad CIDAC survey on insecurity in Mexico, said the organisation found that 98 percent of all crimes go unpunished. "We have been listening to promises from the authorities for 10 years, but all we see is the situation getting worse and worse." Calderón has deployed thousands of members of the military and federal police throughout the country to clamp down on drug trafficking. However, figures from the Attorney General’s Office indicate that the strategy has failed to make a dent in the drug trade. On the contrary, all facets of drug trafficking activity -- production, transportation and possession -- have increased 25 percent on average under Calderón. At the same time, reports of human rights violations committed by soldiers, like illegal searches, arbitrary arrests, cases of torture and sexual abuse, have mushroomed. The government defends the use of the military in the fight against the drug trade, arguing that there is no other force with firepower similar to that of the drug trafficking gangs. In addition, the police forces are hardly in a position to take on the powerful drug mafias, have no central command, and are riddled with corruption. For the umpteenth time, the authorities have once again promised to clean up the country’s police forces and to coordinate the 1,600 different forces that are active in the country, with a combined total of 412,000 police officers. They also pledged to design national standards for police and set up agencies that will continually scrutinise police forces, with federal assistance. The great majority of police forces are managed by governors and mayors, and under Mexican law, prevention and prosecution of almost all crimes, with the exception of drug trafficking, falls under the jurisdiction of local and state authorities, rather than the central government. "I hope the new commitments on crime represent a watershed. Otherwise, the crisis will extend to the entire state apparatus," said Zepeda.

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