Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change


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Our findings underscore additional efforts needed to raise technical knowledge of the law among personnel tasked with its enforcement. Police professionalization, including minimum educational standards, appear critical for aligning policing with harm reduction goals. The predominant framework for drug policies around the world focuses on criminalization and punishment [ 1 ].

Meanwhile, this legal framework has also unintended collateral harm, including street violence, occupational risks to police, police corruption, spread of infectious diseases, and various social and economic detriments [ 2 ]. In the realm of infectious disease, arbitrary policing tactics such as syringe confiscation have been associated with higher risks of human immunodeficiency virus HIV transmission [ 6 ]. Incarceration of drug users increases their risk for blood borne infections, due to high levels of drug use, scarce access to injection equipment and condoms, and exposure to sexual abuse and extortion [ 7 , 8 ].

Amidst regional efforts to reduce harms emanating from this punitive framework, police enforcement, either through formal or informal practices, should be included as factors shaping public health outcomes [ 9 , 10 ]. To meet these challenges, the federal government moved to involve local authorities in the prosecution of minor drug crimes. These law reforms decriminalized [ 15 — 17 ] possession of small amounts of drugs, while delegating criminal prosecution of retail drug sales down from the federal to the state level [ 18 ]. The reform mandated that, when apprehended by police, individuals possessing small quantities of drugs for personal consumption below a specified volume would not be charged with a crime.

Instead, these users must be referred to the health authorities and then released, avoiding jail time altogether. The federal law additionally set a deadline of August for full implementation and funding of the reforms on the local level. All states had to modify their penal codes and local regulations, such as police procedures and treatment referrals, to comply with the new regulations [ 18 ].

By decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs, it held the potential to reduce criminalization of users, instead facilitating their engagement with substance use treatment services. These reforms were also supported by broader efforts to professionalize law enforcement and the judicial system in Mexico to improve the administration of justice, including the creation of federal guidelines for minimum education standards for municipal police [ 19 ].

Despite the significance and controversy surrounding these professionalization efforts, their impact on drug policy reform efforts has never been formally evaluated. Located in Baja California on the northwest Mexican border with the USA, the city forms an urban border region and is the busiest land border crossing of the world.

As a result of active north- and south-bound migration, the city is home to large numbers of high-risk individuals such as sex workers, people who inject drugs PWID , and deportees from the USA [ 20 , 21 ]. The city is a major route for drug trafficking and consumption of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine [ 22 ].

Compared with the national average in Mexico 0. Of concern is the possibility that HIV and other sexual transmitted diseases are likely to spread to other vulnerable populations in close proximity in the city [ 27 ]. Previous research by our team had identified syringe confiscation by police officers to be independently associated to an increase on receptive needle sharing and a higher prevalence of HIV infection among PWID in the city of Tijuana [ 30 ], although it is legal to carry syringes without a prescription in Mexico.

The new reforms do not specifically address the possession of syringes containing drugs. Our studies regarding needle-stick injuries among police in Tijuana have found that a substantial proportion of officers report regularly encountering syringes, including syringes that contain drugs [ 31 ]. Drug decriminalization, reduction of syringe confiscation, and scale-up in access to substance use treatment in Tijuana have the potential to reduce both local and regional harms related to drug use.

Drug user experiences suggested apparent gaps in police knowledge of drug possession laws and related policies [ 32 — 34 ], echoing a growing evidence base of gaps in police knowledge of drug policies [ 35 , 36 ].

FSI - The Mexico Initiative

In our mixed-methods cohort study of PWID, conducted between and in the city of Tijuana, drug users reported near-total absence of experiences linked to the operational components of the reform [ 32 ]. Other observers have expressed concerns that the reform may inadvertently intensify criminalization of users [ 37 ]. To improve street-level implementation of the law, we designed a police education program PEP.

In order to inform future training and other structural interventions, we also sought to identify officer characteristics associated with improved knowledge of drug policy content under the PEP. The Tijuana municipal police force is among the largest in Mexico, with an estimated officers, divided among 11 policing precincts. These precincts are drawn similarly to match the geographical boundaries of the political-administrative divisions within the municipality.

Officers are equally distributed among the precincts, and they are expected to periodically rotate from one to another. Since , the average annual turnover has been relatively low, at 6. Due to federal support designed to incentivize police professionalization, annual refresher training consisting of various modules is required [ 40 ].

While the program was initially designed as a stepped-wedge randomized controlled trial, subsequent policy and programmatic imperatives at SSPM complicated random assignment. However, the design still contains core elements of a stepped wedge design, where pre-intervention period for each officer is treated as the control. These modules contained legal information about the drug quantities decriminalized for personal possession and a description of public health-based interventions targeting PWID in the city, such as syringe exchange programs SEP and opioid substitution treatment OST ; all of this reinforced through visual aids resembling threshold volumes of specific drugs and video vignettes to help in knowledge acquisition.

Within its overarching occupational safety framework, the PEP included content emphasizing the legality of syringe possession by PWIDs and the application of this provision to needle stick injury prevention among police [ 38 , 41 ]. Specifically, the training underscored that officers should communicate the legality of syringe possession to suspects before a pat-down search, thereby encouraging individuals to volunteer syringe possession and discouraging unauthorized syringe confiscation.

This doctrinal content was reinforced through an interactive role-play exercise. Data presented in this manuscript are drawn from the pre- and post-training evaluations, where the assessments were made immediately before and immediately following the intervention and were limited to those who completed pre- and post-self-administered paper surveys.

Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change

Bilingual staff translated and back-translated the survey from English to Spanish; trained interviewers piloted the instrument for cultural appropriateness, clarity, and other elements with six officers from the Tijuana police academy—ICAP Instituto de Capacitacion y Adiestramiento Profesional. Unique identifiers were generated for each participating officer, which we used to match pre- and post-training data.

Security and Police Reform in Mexico and Central America

Officers received compensation movie tickets worth approximately 20 USD for the completion of both surveys. All information was confidential, and participants were informed that there were no consequences of their decision to participate on their current or future employment within the SSPM Tijuana. For each of the four outcomes, we dichotomized the responses by correct or incorrect quantities under the law. Police officers might have difficulty identifying precise weight limits e. However, to avoid a specification error and overestimating the effect of the education variable, we control for age and gender in the multivariable analyses [ 46 ].

We were unable to match the survey information for 37 officers, so they were excluded from the analysis. Our final sample was comprised of the officers for whom we had matched pre- and post-training surveys. The sample represents mostly men At baseline, only 9. Changes in technical and conceptual legal knowledge about most commonly misused drugs. At baseline, between For marijuana possession, there was a major The difference between legal and conceptual legal knowledge for syringe possession is markedly narrower 5.

Only level of education was significantly associated with conceptual legal knowledge uptake for all of the analyzed substances. Individuals with high school education were at least twice as likely to be learners compared to those with lower education, for syringes aOR 2. These results underscore the failure of an effective rollout of the reforms in that locale. Our findings suggest that the effort to maintain minimum educational requirements [ 47 ] i. The use of a standardized test measuring educational performance could also help incentivize improved instructional coverage and learning tools among police officers.

International literature reflects growing recognition of the importance of PEPs to inform police practices targeting vulnerable groups [ 48 , 49 ]. In evaluating the legal knowledge element of the PEP, this study adds to this emerging evidence base and highlights the successes, challenges, and opportunities of harm reduction-focused police instruction [ 50 ]. Our previous analysis suggests that the implementation of operational components of the reform are close to non-existent in Tijuana [ 32 ]. Using partial data from freedom of information requests, other authors have concluded that while federal detentions for drug crimes have increased, this phenomenon has not been reflected in trends on the local level.

More studies that triangulate information from drug user, police, and judicial sources could help to better evaluate the impact of the reform [ 51 ]. Drug policy reform is often necessary, but not sufficient to achieve public health goals because of gaps in translating formal laws to policing practice [ 52 , 53 ].

Since the ESCUDO project seeks to close the gap in the implementation of a harm reduction-oriented policy [ 38 , 52 ], identifying factors that potentiate better uptake of legal information is critical to better roll out of the law. Evaluation of past police education initiatives, including those focused on harm reduction content, has noted discrepancies in uptake and receptiveness of trainings based on a number of characteristics.

These studies have included demographic factors like age, education level, and number of years working as a police officer, as well as attitudes on harm reduction and other occupational safety factors [ 5 ]. Our analysis found that only educational level was significantly associated with legal knowledge improvement after adjusting for other socio-demographic factors.

In a novel way, this reframes police professionalization efforts such as mandatory employment standards [ 54 ] as potentially instrumental for harm reduction. We have found only one previously published study examining predictors of legal knowledge acquisition among officers, which identified years of police service as a significant predictor for follow-up knowledge intake [ 55 ].

Our study, with its large sample size and high participation rate, substantially expands the evidence base, with implications for instructional design and tailoring. Nonetheless, legal knowledge change alone is likely not sufficient to transform drug law enforcement. Structural factors such as deeply ingrained stigma, arrest, and other punitive enforcement incentives and other contributing influences also shape police practices.

This alone makes legal knowledge a vital intervention target; specific contribution of legal knowledge, attitudinal, and other training components to behavior change will be explored in future analyses using follow-up cohort data. Prior police reform in Mexico has shown that local police forces lack the education, resources, and proper accountability controls to do their jobs effectively [ 56 ].

In addition, policing strategies might change from administration to administration, in part due to the lack of a strong civil public sector career system which relies more on informal rules or patronage appointments [ 40 ]. Efforts to standardize and professionalize policing have taken the form of federal guidelines and subsidies, among others [ 19 ]. Street-level officers and management should be involved in planning the reforms, so collaboration with external actors and the police can be successful by combining a rigorous evaluation of the results and adapting them to the realities of policing on a daily basis [ 56 ].

The successful experience of the Portuguese reform could help to motivate police management to embrace drug decriminalization as a way to reduce the burden of drug-related harms on the criminal justice system. Portugal saw a decline in costs associated to the imprisoning of drug offenders, overcrowded jails, and reducing the time officers spent in dealing with drug offenses instead of solving high impact crimes [ 57 ]. It is imperative to reconsider the drug volumes deemed reflective of typical personal consumption amounts established by the reform. As demonstrated in other cases around the world, the thresholds for personal possession must be meaningful, closely related to the market realities, and in no situation should they lead to arrest or criminal prosecution [ 17 ].

As expressed by other observers, the setting of artificially low threshold quantities might expose casual consumers to excessive criminalization Others have posited additional theoretical unintended harms, such as consumers being incentivized to purchase larger amounts to avoid frequent contact with drug dealers [ 37 ]. It is also worth noting that decriminalization schemes vary around the world, and there are many other factors at play other than the threshold quantities, such as the role of medical professionals, the institutional capacity of the judicial sector, or the existing social norms toward drug use, that must be taken into consideration to create an effective model [ 17 ].

The foundation of this project was a unique collaboration between an academic institution and a police department, including its training academy. The partnership between UCSD and the SSPM Tijuana, the first study of its kind in Latin America, offers valuable lessons that could shape police training, practices, and drug policy implementation in Mexico and elsewhere across the region and globally. Sustainable collaborations between academic institutions and local governments are critical to long-term strategies for police reform and institutionalizing a synergy between two areas that have traditionally operated in isolation from one another, police and public health.

Our study is subject to several limitations. First, a threat to internal validity might be present if the questions on the survey do not measure the constructs as expected. Although a self-administered survey helped reduced social desirability [ 58 ], an interviewer-administered survey would have helped determine if the officers properly understood the questions. However, the costs and logistical difficulties to evaluate a large classroom simultaneously made it unfeasible. Previous studies have documented high level of concordance between these two modes of survey administration [ 59 ].

There is also a risk of having a non-response bias, where police officers that refuse to take part in the study might express systematically different answers from those included in the evaluation [ 60 ]. In total, 37 0. Further, 18 0. Lastly, the experience of police officers in Tijuana may be different than other cities in Mexico, making it difficult to generalize our findings to other police departments in the country [ 61 ].

As an initial phase of a larger training evaluation effort, this study presents an assessment of the factors shaping police knowledge uptake regarding drug and syringe possession. Efforts to improve police legal knowledge are critical to any drug decriminalization or other harm reduction-focused police intervention.

Duplicate citations

Such reforms are not self-implementing and must be supported by other interventions designed to improve their street-level impact. Broader police reform and professionalization is an under-recognized structural factor that has the potential of improving the state of harm reduction in North America and beyond.

We would also like to thank the field staff and all of the participants in Tijuana for making this research possible. Finally, a special thanks to Jahadak for lending his story to educate police officers. The funders had no role in the design of the study, data collection, analysis, interpretation of data, and writing of the manuscript. JA wrote the initial draft of the manuscript.

AB and OO provided the police department feedback. LB and SS conceived of the study, contributed to the content, revised, and provided the final approval of the manuscript. All of the authors contributed to and approved the final version of the manuscript. Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Arredondo, Email: ude. Strathdee, Email: ude.

Cepeda, Email: ude.


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Abramovitz, Email: ude. Artamonova, Email: ude. Clairgue, Email: ude. Bustamante, Email: moc. Mittal, Email: ude. Rocha, Email: ude. Olivarria, Email: moc. Morales, Email: moc. Rangel, Email: moc. Magis, Email: moc. Beletsky, Email: moc. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Journal List Harm Reduct J v. Harm Reduct J. Published online Nov 8. Arredondo , 1, 2 S. Strathdee , 1 J. Cepeda , 1 D.

Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change
Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change
Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change
Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change
Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change
Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change
Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change
Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change
Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change

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