NUEVO LAREDO — A year ago, traffic cop Alejandro Waldo couldn’t leave his office without a military escort.
Investigations of car accidents sometimes had to be postponed for hours, as Waldo waited for the army to show up at his office to set up a convoy.
Regular patrols of the city were out of the question, because it was too dangerous to be on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, a border town that has witnessed several turf wars between drug cartels over the past decade.
“It was hard to work here,” said Waldo, who specializes in investigating traffic accidents, but also hands out parking tickets. “For 18 months, the military helped us, the soldiers would go out with us to the accidents and bring us back to the office.”
Now, as violence begins to wane in Nuevo Laredo and the Mexican military steps up operations in the city, the transit department once again patrols the streets.
And they’re hiring, because currently, there are only 23 agents available to patrol this city of 400,000 at any time.
Few people want to be traffic officers in Nuevo Laredo however, even though the job doesn’t involve risky tasks like arresting drug dealers or investigating homicides.
Like many Mexican cities that have been affected by drug violence Nuevo Laredo is struggling to rebuild its institutions, especially those that are related to law enforcement.
“The climate [of violence] that the country has lived through, is not positive for young people who want to enter these types of careers,” said Ernesto Ferrara the town’s Deputy Major.
“In some parts of the country, fear and the lack of prestige that a police job brings with it keep people away,” said Pedro Penaloza, an expert on policing strategies.
“These people live in combat zones, and everyone knows who they are, the criminal groups know who [policemen’s] families are,” Penaloza said.
Ferrara told us that he had to fire 95 traffic officers over the summer after they failed to pass anti-corruption tests that are now mandated by the Mexican government.
To fill these empty spots, he launched a campaign to recruit new traffic cops at the end of August, but in the first two weeks only 8 people applied.
“We extended the recruiting period for two weeks and now we have 50 applicants,” Ferrara said with some optimism. “But we will need more than that, because not all of them will pass the [entrance] tests.”
It’s not hard to see why people would hesitate to apply to the traffic police. Five of its members were killed by gunmen from 2011 to 2013, and their murders have not been solved. The pictures of the dead adorn the traffic police headquarters.
A NATIONAL PROBLEM
Across Mexico, municipal and state police departments have been firing hundreds of police officers suspected of having links with drug cartels, or letting go of those who fail to pass quality control and “trustworthiness” exams that include lie detector tests.
These mass firings in state and municipal police forces have forced officials to look for a new generation of candidates.
And there are places where hiring new people has been even tougher than in Nuevo Laredo.
In Chilpancingo, the capital of the embattled Guerrero state, only 10 people responded to a recent campaign to recruit 140 officers for the municipal police force. To increase applications officials even lowered education requirements for cops, so that even people that only had a middle school education could apply.
In the neighboring state of Michoacan several municipalities have had to disband their entire police forces, including Caracuaro, a town where police officers resigned en masse in 2011 after they were detained and threatened by a local cartel. Law enforcement in these places now depends on a combination of state and federal forces.
One part of the country which has succeeded in building a new police force is Monterrey, the capital of the northern Nuevo Leon State.
Three years ago, Nuevo Leon purged its state police force, firing 4,200 officers who did not pass anti-corruption tests, or were suspected of having links to cartels.
Then, with the help of the local business community, the state set up an elite police force called the “Fuerza Civil.” The force, which now has about 5,000 officers, is made up entirely of new recruits, who’ve never belonged to any of Mexico’s police units before.
Fuerza Civil pays new recruits 15,000 pesos a month [$1,200] twice what a rookie officer makes elsewhere in Mexico. The force provides a place to live, and has set up recruiting booths in Mexico City and other parts of the country, which are boosted by carefully produced videos and ad campaigns depicting members of the force as heroes, who have taken on the task of saving Mexico.
Penaloza says that one of the biggest draws of the Fuerza Civil, is that it also includes a university, where recruits can get professional degrees in areas related to security.
He says that Fuerza Civil is “the model” for other areas of Mexico that have been crippled by violence.
BIG BUDGET POLICE?
But most regions in Mexico cannot afford an organization like Fuerza Civil, with its barracks, its university and its high salaries.
In Nuevo Laredo, young men and women who enter the traffic police department are being offered 8,000 pesos [$650] a month.
There have been no fancy videos to support recruiting, only an ad, with no pictures, that is published every day in the local newspaper.
Jose Luis Canales, the new transit police director, is trying to improve the departments image by fixing up its offices, where paint peels off the walls.
He’s also trying to stamp corruption out of the department by setting up a hotline where people can denounce cops that ask drivers for bribes, when they make a small infraction.
“When I first came here [in October of 2013] people asked me, what are you going to do with all those cops who steal from the city?” Canales told us in his office, which is decorated with deer antlers and a six foot tall grizzly bear.
Canales is hoping that by cleaning up and modernizing Nuevo Laredo’s transit police force, he will make it easier to attract recruits.
His grandfather was a traffic officer in the 1950s and he’d like to restore the reputation of this job.
“Traffic officers were viewed with respect back then,” Canales said. “We’d like to restore the dignity of this job, and we want traffic officers to be trustworthy once again.”