Security’s Ugly Side: How To Uncorrupt The Corrupt – Analysis


By Katie Steefel

Police forces and corruption often go hand-in-hand throughout the hemisphere. Deeply entrenched corruption pervades the region from the highest level of the police establishment down to the most humble level. Immorality in the police force is not new to Latin America, and there have been many attempts to rev up the presumed protectors of society. Ideally, a serious attack on police corruption would include but not be limited to: a careful evaluation of every current police member, meticulous rehiring to replace those found guilty of corruption, appropriate wage increases, improved security for personnel and their families, team-building events, adequate training, a system to monitor police officers’ performance, and a tougher criminal justice system for officers accused of misconduct.

Latin America
Latin America

Realistically, Latin American countries have neither the capabilities nor the resources to carry out all of these measures. In spite of the limitations of most regional countries, the overwhelming scope of the problem, and repeated setbacks along the way, fighting corruption within the police force should not be considered a lost cause. Rather, the deft use of available resources and effective leadership can be the first steps to stem the double-dealing prevalent in Latin America’s most corruption-plagued nations.

There are three essential steps that Latin American countries need to adopt in order to begin the long process of curtailing corruption. Two of the recommended strategies might focus on establishing a small elite group of honest top police personnel. Authorities must energetically weed out their corrupt predecessors, and then create a system of accountability for the remaining staff. The third strategy involves limiting the incentives for petty bribes at the local level by increasing police officer salaries and emphasizing termination for such offenses. These actions can be accomplished with limited resources and a strong political will to straighten out the personal conduct of the newly constituted force.

Focus on the Top

In this crusade against corruption, Latin American governments have found that they must first clean up the top tier of the police hierarchy. Although corruption extends throughout all levels of the force, with the limited resources available to most governments, targeting the top officers may be an effective use of resources, but is not altogether adequate to complete the job.

President Ollanta Humala of Peru recently did just that. In October of this year, Humala forced 30 of 45 of his top police generals to retire from the Peruvian National Police (PNP). Some of the officers were forced to resign because of old age, but the bulk of the mandated departures were part of a concentrated attempt to stem government dishonesty by tightening and reforming the structure of the police. Peru’s Minister of the Interior, Óscar Valdés Dancuart claimed that given budgetary restraints, such restructuring “[was] going to be very healthy for the Police.”[1]

A focused effort on the top level of the force has been more successful than the extensive, sweeping purges of the past, which have proven to be largely ineffective for those Latin American countries that tried to maintain long-term, honest, and professionalized systems. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, police officers of all ranks have been discharged in a series of mass purges. In 2007, 284 top federal police commanders were slashed from the police force.[2] In November 2009, all 1,142 traffic officers in Monterrey were fired,[3] and in August 2010, 3,200 officers, about ten percent of the federal police force, were forced out of office.[4] In October of this year, 1,000 state police officers were terminated.[5] However, all-told, these purges have been met with startlingly little success. Moreover, Professor John Bailey of Georgetown states, “The system of incentives in Mexico still attracts men and women to policing more for opportunities to make higher income, often illegally, than to serve the public. The incentives, plus the absence of effective internal and external controls has lead to situations of extensive corruption.”[6] When police officers are forced out of their posts in such large numbers, they must be replaced quickly or law enforcement tends to collapse. The relatively large number of positions to fill makes it difficult to effectively monitor these new hires, who have the required clean backgrounds as well as the yen for the job “to serve the public.”

Not only have large purges proven to be chronically ineffective, they also may have contributed to the lawlessness sweeping the nation. Bailey further observes, “The mass purges of police typically have added to the problems of criminality rather than solving them.”[7] Zulia Orozco, a researcher at INSyDE, (the Institute for Security and Democracy) evinces the same concern as Professor Bailey: “What are you going to do with the cops who fail [lie-detector] tests? They could end up in the street with no job and be easy prey to be recruited by organized crime.”[8] The lesson here is that providing more candidates for drug cartel recruitment only contributes to the crushing crime problems of the nation.

Instead of the mass purges, Mexico and other Latin American governments should make the recruitment of the highest-ranking officers their top priority, which would allow the resource-starved governments to be more thorough and critical in the evaluation of such senior personnel. The firing in the senior ranks, when it occurs, must be meticulous and fair-minded so that the dismissals are viewed as legitimate both within the ranks of the police and throughout the country. In 2001, Peru committed its Interior Ministry to police reforms; however, a U.S. Agency for International Development brief later reported that: “Lower rank police supported the reform, but senior ranks with deeply vested interests in the corrupt status quo resisted the process.”[9] Unethical senior officers must be removed before any progress in cleaning up the police force can be realized. Although Humala rightfully targeted a small group of police officers, many have criticized him for acting in haste and without affording the accused men adequate legal defense. Understandably, at least one general has claimed to be falsely accused of corruption.[10]

Another benefit of focusing on a small group of top officers is that investigators can devote more time and attention to filling each open position. Purges of suspected corrupt police solve little if the positions are not filled with individuals who will strenuously resist corruption. With fewer police personnel to replace, stricter and more strategic guidelines can be used. Alternatively, the positions of those officers forced out can be given to remaining officers of demonstrated quality, as Humala did with some PNP generals. He reduced the numbers from 57 to 27 and decided not to fill the 30 now empty positions.[11] In an attempt to create a more pyramid-shaped police force with fewer people in charge at the top, he consolidated the power of the police generals.[12] Though it is too soon to tell whether Humala’s reforms are helping to mitigate corruption, his focus on top leaders and the consolidation of power could prove to be viable options for other Latin American countries to emulate. However, while merging roles can be an effective tool to solidify honest power at the top of the police force, putting too much power in the hands of a few people might be just as, if not more, dangerous.

Keeping Tabs on the Top

An effective police monitoring system directed by a body independent of the police force is necessary to ensure that newly installed police officers do not repeat the offenses of those they have replaced. The responsibility of monitoring the activities of the national and local police forces should logically fall on the Interior Ministry or some other properly sanctioned watchdog agency. In 2001, Peru attempted to utilize the Interior Ministry to monitor and improve the police force by creating the Commission for the Modernization of the Police.[13] As described previously, Peru’s attempts in 2001 were thwarted in part by top police officials who strongly resisted the initiatives. Now, in theory, dishonest high-up officers who in 2001 posed an insurmountable problem largely have been expelled from the police force. As a result, it would be perfect timing for Humala to revamp the Interior Ministry’s image as well as its efforts to improve the police force and, most importantly, crash ahead monitoring the newly appointed senior officers. The remaining police officials would be more likely to comply and assist in the process since the PNP generals who are remaining in their positions are the very ones who hopefully do not partake in the “corrupt status quo.”

Raise the Wages

The third line of attack on corruption involves targeting the petty bribes being given to individual police officers at the local level in order to suborn them. In a report released in April 2011, the United States Department of State highlighted low pay in Peru as a root cause of such corruption:

Many police are eager to serve but do not have the training and equipment necessary to do so effectively. Morale is poor, pay is low, and corruption is rampant, which has created an overall negative image of the police in the minds of the populace. Police have been known to either solicit bribes in order to supplement their salaries or may readily accept bribes when offered.[14]

In many cases, police salaries are so low that officers routinely resort to accepting monetary bribes out of necessity. This condition is generally present throughout Latin America. Mexico provides a particularly good case study of the extremely low pay and the institutionalization of la mordita (the bite) as a built-in acknowledgement of the ubiquitous epidemic of venality. The average annual salary for a police officer in Mexico is around USD 8,040, but some officers earn as little as USD 3,144;[15] both manage to be well below Mexico’s average per-capita income of USD 9,812.[16] These underpaid police officers seek bribes out of necessity in order to supplement their paltry incomes. A study issued by the Senate’s Public Security Committee estimated that in Mexico “low-ranking state and municipal officers can earn up to 7,000 pesos per month, almost doubling their monthly wages, by colluding with criminal gangs, so an underpaid officer can multiply his income by simply agreeing to look the other way.”[17]

It is essential that Latin American governments raise the salaries of police officers so they can legally support themselves and their families. Such an action would help stem corruption that results from the fact that “many police are eager to serve” but simply need more income in order to support their families. Not all corruption will be voided as the result of a pay raise, as greed will remain a powerful vice, but until corrupt members of the force are no longer able to act with impunity, raising their wages is a good place to start in order to aggressively reduce petty individual corruption.

The Unsolvable Problem: Drug Cartels

The vexing problem that remains is that some police officers engage in anticipated misconduct out of fear of being physically harmed or even murdered. No matter how much police officers are paid, if their lives or those of their families are at stake, it is difficult to blame them for acting dishonestly. For example, police forces in Mexico are often given the option of “plata o plomo,” meaning accept the bribe or be murdered.[18] This problem is deep-rooted throughout much of Latin America and is not something that can be easily resolved.

Start Uncorrupting the Corrupt!

Given limited resources and the enormity of the corruption problem within local and national police forces in Latin America, the region’s governments need to create plans of action specifically tailored to their respective needs and capabilities. Analyzing police corruption efforts in Peru and Mexico provides lessons for hemispheric authorities that could help in their efforts to improve the integrity of top-ranking police officers. The principal steps that governments can undertake involve: a careful evaluation of the performance of the most important police officers on the force and the meticulous replacement of those found to be corrupt, the creation of a monitoring system for top officers that would be run by an agency outside the police force, and finally, a general increase in wages so that police officers are no longer forced to take bribes out of necessity. These actions require resources and a steadfast political commitment on the part of the nations’ leaders. Although they will not be able to completely wipe out corruption in Latin America, these are essential first steps in the process of uncorrupting the corrupt.

COHA Research Associate Katie Steefel

References for this article can be found here.


COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

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