Mexico’s Police Force: The “Plata o Plomo” Predicament

When it comes to fighting drug cartels and violence, Mexico’s police force is often “caught between a rock and hard place”. Mexico’s police force is frequently forced to choose between two ugly alternatives, which are commonly referred to as “plata o plomo”. “Plata o plomo” translates to “silver or lead” and describes the predicament that Mexico’s police force is caught in on a daily basis: accepting drug cartel bribes or being killed for carrying out justice. The former is the more common practice of the two and results in a weak, unstable, and corrupt justice system in Mexico.

Several days ago, 28 bodies were discovered in a mass grave near a small town called Iguala in Guerrero, Mexico. It is highly suspected that these deaths were connected to 43 students’ disappearance late last month; 43 students went missing following an ugly confrontation between police and student protestors on September 26th in Guerrero. It was speculated that under the orders of a powerful local drug cartel in Iguala—Guerreros Unidos—police had abducted the students who were reported missing. After further investigation, it was discovered that the mayor and the head police chief recently fled Iguala, pointing to the innate corruption and fraudulence that is still very present in Mexico’s police force today.

Mexico’s judicial system and police force are very weak. First, Mexico lacks rule of law, as demonstrated by the fact that only 2% of all crimes in Mexico lead to convictions. Mexico prides itself on being one of the more “democratic” countries in Latin America; however, with such a fragile judicial system that lacks authority, this is certainly not the case. Second, the fact that the police force is unduly influenced and controlled by drug cartels contributes to further instability and injustice throughout Mexico. Drug cartels pay over $100 million per month in bribes to municipal police officers. As a result, there have been over 30,000 deaths related to drug trafficking in Mexico since 2006. A flimsy judicial system plus a corrupt police force are both factors that set Mexico back in its pursuit for democracy.

Recent deaths in Iguala are just one example of many that have implications for state-wide legitimacy in Mexico. In response to the deaths, teachers, students, and activists have banded together in protest. Over the past few days, Mexican civilians have voiced their cries for justice by parading around with banners that stating, “Who governs Guerrero?” and “Enough of the dead and missing,” and “Protest is a right. Repression is a crime.” While President Enrique Peña Nieto has denounced the killings, calling them “Outrageous, painful, and unacceptable,” he has failed to take any significant action against them. In fact, nearly partway through his six-year term, Peña Nieto has failed to properly address corruption in Mexico’s police force and judicial system. Instead, Peña Nieto has chosen to focus on pursuing an aggressive economic reform agenda. For example, Mexico now has free-trade agreements with over 40 countries and has a strong manufacturing sector where manufactured goods account for three out of every four of Mexico’s export dollars. Peña Nieto also instituted a labor reform that allows businesses to more easily hire and fire employees. Consequently, the fight for justice and human rights can only be put off for so long. As dissidence rapidly augments among Mexican civilians, as seen with recent protests in Iguala, it is clear that Peña Nieto can no longer “avoid” the corruption that runs rampant. In order to secure legitimacy, Peña Nieto must take calculative, deliberate steps towards eliminating corruption in Mexico’s justice system.

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