GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Guadalajara police commander Juan Carlos Martinez took Mexico’s national police vetting exam in April 2012. He failed. But no one in government would tell him why.
A few months later, he received a phone call from a man identifying himself as a member of a drug cartel. Why don’t you think about joining us, he said the man on the phone asked. You won’t go hungry.
Martinez, 38, declined the offer and maintains that he had been an honorable cop.
But the phone call was not an anomaly. Here in the state of Jalisco, the cartels have tried to lure ex-cops with online recruitment ads. In the northern state of Coahuila, they put up posters.
It is just one of the challenges Mexico faces as it struggles to deep-clean its troubled police forces, relying on an ambitious control de confianza, or confidence control, test that aims to ensure every officer’s aptitude and trustworthiness. It’s an effort likely to face changes under the country’s new government.
The concept was spelled out in a 2009 law promoted by then-President Felipe Calderon: Every Mexican officer would be subject to a battery of psychological, drug and polygraph tests as well as a home visit to identify those living beyond their means. Officers who failed would be fired. New recruits who took their places would be tested as well, and all would be retested regularly.
Calderon viewed it as a way to finally establish a clear line between good and bad guys in a country where officers are often feared and despised for abuses of power and ties to the cartels.
“It’s impossible to leave the fox inside the henhouse,” he told a group of governors in 2011. The plan was also supported by the U.S. government, which contributed money and expertise.
But four years into the process, many are instead losing confidence in the test. Its administrators have been criticized for an over-reliance on polygraph exams that are sometimes administered in a sloppy, unprofessional way that may lead to false positives.
Some observers of Mexico’s judicial reform movement are concerned that the testing program deprives officers of due-process rights. In Jalisco, critics worry that the evaluations are being used to settle political scores. Meanwhile, many state and municipal governments have been slow to administer the test and often decline to fire cops who fail.
Mexico missed its self-imposed deadline of January for testing all officers. Though every federal cop has taken the exam, fewer than half of the nation’s 515,000 state and municipal police had been tested as of February, according to federal data obtained by the Mexican nonprofit Common Cause. The group predicts that a revised October deadline will also not be met.
Among other things, testing centers lack enough qualified personnel to evaluate the tens of thousands of remaining officers. And in states such as Oaxaca, many communities follow special indigenous laws and often disregard federal mandates.
Nationally, less than one-third of the 36,000 police who have failed the test have been fired. Some officials have said they don’t have funds for severance pay, and some police are challenging their dismissal in court.
Salvador Caro Cabrera, a Guadalajara councilman and former member of Congress, suspects that some state and local officials may be in cahoots with dirty officers and unwilling to let them go.
Adjacent to Guadalajara, in a sprawling municipality called Zapopan, Mayor Hector Robles has floated the idea of granting some failed cops micro-loans to help start small businesses, giving them an alternative to joining the drug gangs.
“You can’t toss these police out in the streets the day after they fail,” Caro said. “Maybe in other countries that works, but here in Mexico, you can’t do it.”
Adjustments to the process seem likely under new President Enrique Pena Nieto, who plans a broad overhaul of the Calderon security strategy. Last month, a member of his Institutional Revolutionary Party introduced a bill that would ensure that police aren’t fired solely on polygraph results.
At a recent news conference, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam bemoaned the loss of some “good police” and said that the system would be revised, though he did not spell out details.
This week, the governor of Guanajuato state, Miguel Marquez, told reporters that it was his expectation, based on conversations with the attorney general, that the government would soon drop polygraph tests from the control de confianza process for low-level officers, because it made them “nervous” and resulted in false positives.
Murillo issued what appeared to be criticism of U.S. involvement in the program: “We let ourselves be guided by the values of other latitudes, other countries.”
In Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest metropolitan area, those who have failed the test have been particularly vocal. Martinez, the fired commander, was among scores who took to the streets to protest in January.
He said he was frustrated that the state-run testing center wouldn’t tell him why he had failed. He also cited a recent article in a local newspaper that showed numerous officers had passed the test despite questions about their character.
The article in La Jornada Jalisco was based on state testing-center documents also obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Some officers who passed were described as being suspected of robbery, extortion and bribe-taking. One, according to the state assessors’ description, was “prone to participation in criminal acts, is opportunistic, rebellious, aggressive.”
Though testing centers established in each state were meant to be independent of the often cutthroat world of local politics, Martinez and Caro maintain that the Jalisco system was infected by cliquishness and was used to protect favorites while punishing others. (An official for the Jalisco state testing center declined to comment, and federal officials turned down requests for interviews.)
“We’re scapegoats,” said Martinez, a married father of three who is hoping to find work as a substitute teacher.
Caro said that only one-third of Guadalajara’s 3,000 officers had been tested. Of those, 137 officers failed and were fired. The situation is more dramatic in neighboring Zapopan. Robles, the 38-year-old mayor, was elected in October on a promise to add hundreds of police. Instead, he soon learned that 389 of his roughly 1,600 officers had failed the test.
The only details Robles received from the testing center was that about 10 officers had not passed the drug test. He fired those. But Robles was worried about the rest. Should some of them also be let go?
The tests, he said, “do not really determine or decide whether somebody has committed an illegal act or is involved in drug dealing. You don’t have that. You have a polygraph test where you ask them, ‘Did you participate in any illegal activities?’ But these people are not necessarily criminals.”
He offered desk jobs in the municipal government to some of the officers who failed. At the same time, judges were making preliminary rulings in favor of some of the failed officers. It seemed possible, Robles said, that they might never be fired.
He said he was concerned about reprisals. Several Mexican mayors have been slain in recent years over efforts to purge bad cops.
Weighing such factors, Robles hasn’t fired anyone else, though he has offered to retrain some officers for other careers. The micro-loan idea, he said, will be discussed by the municipal council.
Robles figures that if a cop is dirty but agrees to take a municipal desk job, he or she is demonstrating a desire to get out of the game, since without a badge or radio, the officer is no longer of value to the cartels.
“I don’t know if they’re colluding or not,” he said. “But I prefer them to have a clean income, rather than have it on the streets.”
Each day, some of the failed Zapopan officers show up at a concrete neighborhood activity center on the outskirts of town for training classes and wait. On a recent afternoon, a group of them gathered on a corner outside the center and shared their stories. All proclaimed their innocence. The claims, of course, are nearly impossible to prove.
Francisco Arevalo Gutierrez, a lawyer representing some of the officers, said that he agreed in theory with the idea of the confidence test. The problem, he said, is that corrupt Mexican police are often little more than foot soldiers for corrupt Mexican lawmakers.
“Nothing’s going to change,” Arevalo said, “if they don’t give the same exams to the politicians.”
(Cecilia Sanchez of the Los Angeles Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.)