Serve and protect is far from a reality for police in Mexico. While there are many honest, hardworking cops in the Mexican local and federal police forces, they sadly operate in a system which fosters corruption. A history of scandals have tainted the institution, with officers either being paid to look away or not trained enough to know how to act.

A common question among Grupo IRENA’s clients, mostly investors in Mexico, is whether they can trust the police in times of trouble. In case of robbery or kidnapping, will an investigation really be opened? Can local patrol cars be counted on to attend the scene of a crime rapidly? A new program has begun to change this in recent years.

Your friendly neighborhood cop

Tired of the continuing negative reputation, authorities made an attempt to change this in 2016. A new type of police, known as Policía de Proximidad, was put in place to make cops more efficient and responsive, while increasing citizen supervision.

Mexico City was divided into 847 quadrants with a mobile police unit in charge of attending any emergency within each quadrant. The aim, authorities said at the time, would be for units to require an average of 2 minutes and 50 seconds to reach any crime or incident in their quadrant, including in sensitive areas such as schools and banks.

This was accompanied by a free number (5208 9898) for citizens to directly reach the police unit in charge of their quadrant. A phone app, Mi Policia, was made freely available for citizens to find the mobile phone number of their local beat cop.

Two years on, Policía de Proximidad has been rolled out in more cities, including Guadalajara, Los Cabos and Morelia. But has it really had an impact?

Some notable benefits

Overcoming the deep mistrust in police present across the Mexican public and enterprises is a huge task. It is impossible for any single program to make a significant dent while corruption remains unchecked in the upper echelons of government.

However, Policía de Proximidad has made a measurable notable improvement. It seems Mexico has finally understood and applied one of the basic tenets of community policing around the world. Seeing the same faces and same cars every day breeds trust and confidence. Furthermore, being known in the area means a policeman will find it far more difficult to carry out petty crimes or ask for a bribe. He would be caught immediately.

Part of the quadrant system is that officers are rotated out only when absolutely necessary, with most staying for months or years in the same posting. This allows Mexican citizens, even in the larger cities or neighborhoods, to associate a face to a name and reach that person when an emergency strikes.

Another notable improvement: the adoption of bicycles. 2,400 police now cycle in the streets of Mexico City and staff 409 surveillance centers which the public can visit at any time. Other elements have helped this system make a real difference. Home visits by local cops can now be reassuring events, instead of the smash and grab operations they often were.

The Policía de Proximidad program has also benefited from being somewhat isolated from other police units, such as having its own operational center and with each patrol car being tracked by GPS.

Copyright: Gobierno de CDMX

Mexico’s specific goals

It is important to note a major difference between the Western concept of “community policing” and Policía de Proximidad. Community policing, especially under the British model, is integral to becoming a familiar, reassuring presence. Police officers might visit homes, speak in schools, play football with kids, essentially become a local ambassador.

In Mexico, the goal is simpler: to bring police where there were none. A decade ago, many parts of Mexico City never saw police. Now, these new officers are reclaiming lost territory.

This does not mean they are particularly brilliant at their jobs. A lack of training and devotion in the Mexican police force is a real problem. Most rookies join the force because they want a steady paycheck, not because of some devotion to duty.

However, while the integrity and trustworthiness of every cop in the Policía de Proximidad program cannot be guaranteed, it would be wise of any business in an area under this program to get to know their local officer and cultivate a relationship with them. This makes their cooperation all the more likely should an incident happen.

Overcoming impossible odds

The success of Policía de Proximidad is a positive step. However, it has struggled to make a real dent. According to the ENVIPE 2017 poll, measuring the population’s stance on public security, 80 percent believe their local police are corrupt and less than 50 percent trust police in general.

As long as patrolmen are under pressure to pay bungs to their superiors on a weekly basis, and honest hires are ground down by a system too perverse to really make a difference, it is difficult to imagine this reputation improving.

New president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has long criticized the use of army soldiers to maintain peace in the streets of Mexico. However, since being elected in July, even he has admitted the army will remain deployed as the police is incapable of picking up the strain.