Does community policing work in Latin America? What can be learned from experiences of community policing in Mexico City? This paper analyses the experiences of community policing in Mexico City since 2006, and critiques the theory and practice of the approach applied to Latin American countries. Community policing is widely promoted as beneficial to urban law and order through improved citizen-police relations and cooperation. However, experiences from the Policia de Barrio programme in Mexico City show that clientelism, police corruption and political factionalism make community policing a symbolic exercise that does not genuinely improve public security.
Latin America has become one of the most violent regions in the world. As the region’s population is largely concentrated in cities, most of this violence is urban. Latin America’s urban policymakers increasingly look to external models of policing for solutions to public insecurity and the ‘rule of unlaw’. Since 1990, community policing projects have taken place in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru.
One such large community-policing project is the Policia de Barrio in Mexico City started in 2006. The goal of this programme was to establish public confidence in local police forces. Police and local residents would be brought into closer contact by giving the latter a voice in the evaluation and planning of police work, thus increasing accountability. The Policia de Barrio are assigned to specific boroughs of Mexico City. They participate in neighbourhood committee meetings but remain under the central authority of the police command. Experiences of the Policia de Barrio programme are that:
- Clientelist practices are rife in the neighbourhood committees. Members of the subcommittees assert their authority to use Policia de Barrio as their own private security guards and vigilantes.
- Corruption and paying for police protection is generally rife in Mexico City. Neighbourhood committees in middle-class areas can afford to pay for better protection than those in tougher neighbourhoods.
- Police officers in many areas appear indifferent to what is going on. They are often in large intimidating groups rather than in pairs, and they only sporadically patrol their beat.
- Political factionalism within Mexico’s ruling party determines the supply of security equipment to police in specific boroughs.
Community policing approaches in contemporary Latin America are supported by academics, civil society, national and international NGOs and think tanks, and local politicians. This support is based on an aversion to the history of authoritarian rule and ‘political policing’, together with an assumption that community involvement is an international ‘best practice’ that can contribute to more efficient, democratic and accountable policing. Experiences in Mexico City show a very different picture of illegal, abusive conduct from Policia de Barrio officers, and deep mistrust between police and local residents.
- Politics have a significant and negative impact on the implementation of community policing programmes
- There is an urgent need for empirical studies on community policing in Latin America that are sensitive to socio-political relations and local ‘cultures of control’
- Policymakers should be more sceptical of the assumed democratic potential of community policing programmes
- Political will is necessary to achieve genuine public participation and accountability by addressing the structural problems of local police forces.