Sunday, July 01, 2007

Books and Bad Cops

I stopped venturing into Mexico years ago because I finally figured out that the policemen there were probably more dangerous than any of the common criminals I might meet on the streets. First I quit driving a vehicle into the country, and then I decided that I had crossed the border for the last time even on foot. Mexican policeman have so bad a reputation that they make the New Orleans police department of years past look like a bunch of angels on the job, in fact.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, as the old saying goes, and Eric López is in charge of a program that uses literature in an attempt to convince Mexico's cops that some things are more important than money. The hope is that the program will create some incorruptible policeman to serve Mexico's citizens.
They've left their bulletproof vests on the floor against the wall. But as they read quietly for the first part of their bi-weekly literature class, the 20 policemen and policewomen keep guns holstered at their sides, their handcuffs firmly wedged against their backs.

There is no chatting, but the atmosphere is relaxed. It's a moment to de-stress, says officer Claudia Hernandez, a time to leave behind the felonies and domestic complaints of the street, and to immerse themselves in other worlds.

It is also a novel experiment, "part of an effort to elevate the cultural level of the police," as José Amador puts it. Chief of public security in the Mexico City satellite of Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, Amador is betting he can tackle police corruption through literature, from popular detective fiction to Miguel de Cervantes' 17th-century classic, Don Quixote.

"We think that culture can help them see that there are other values greater than money," he says. "It is a way of competing, of counterbalancing (the bribes) criminals are offering them on a daily basis."

Participation in the program, Literature Always Alert, has been obligatory for almost all of Neza's 1,200 police officers since 2004. "If they have the ability to read not only books but also people's expressions, what lies behind an event, not just the event itself, or what lies behind people's intentions," says Amador, "they will be able to provide a more opportune, more prudent response."
The program's co-ordinator, Eric López, admits that there was some resistance to the idea at first – "not so much rejection," he says, "but incomprehension. `What's it for?' some people would ask." López is not a policeman but a social psychology graduate, the program's seven teachers are referred to as monitors and the one-hour classes as sessions, and participation in them is not only a learning experience, but interesting and fun.

"It has helped us a lot," says officer Hernandez, 31, a former secretary who carries a Mendoza 9-millimetre submachine gun on the job. "It helps us express feelings we are often afraid to let out."

But is Don Quixote any match for the nation's powerful bands of drug traffickers and their vast hoards of illicit cash? Police departments all over Mexico are in thrall to organized crime, says Samuel González Ruiz, former chief of the Mexican government's Special Unit Against Organized Crime. "Mayors and governors throughout the country receive hefty campaign contributions from the cartels. In exchange they get to name the director of public security."
While other municipalities in Mexico have contacted Amador to see how they can start similar programs, he admits that in cleaning up Mexico's police forces, "we still have a long way to go.

"But we are making progress," he adds. "Today we have better relations between the police and the public compared to three years ago."
I tend to be a pessimist when it comes the question of whether or not the basic nature of a culture can be positively impacted in less than decades of gradual change, so I don't expect to notice much change in the Mexican police force during my lifetime. But I do have to admire whomever it was who had the courage to put this kind of plan in place because it proves that good people never give up the hope that things can be made better no matter how largely the odds are stacked against them.

I have to pull for someone like that.
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