Mexico City – Ismael Ramos Mendez had always wanted to be a police officer.
Now 45 years old, he has found himself patrolling a Mexico City metro station, on foot, with his only way home, a police car that won’t start because the battery is dead.
It is not much to show for 20 years of experience, two decorations for exhibiting bravery under fire, and a masters in police administration.
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But Mendez said he knows very well why he is here rather than as a police chief or first inspector. He said it’s because doesn’t pay “the quota” – money officers on the street have to hand to their superiors in some of Mexico’s myriad police forces.
“When you refuse to pay the quotas, you end up like this,” he told Al Jazeera.
“You end up here. Walking, without a car, completely alone. Isolated.”
Many Mexicans don’t trust the police, seeing them as, at best inefficient and at worst, corrupt and in the same as league as organised crime. But many low-level police officers, like Mendez, are not only being forced to pay “the quota” to their superiors, but are also struggling with substandard equipment. Some do not have working patrol vehicles and many lack training. Despite years of talk of police reform, little has changed, even as the country’s violence rises to unprecedented levels.
Half of the 10 retired or active officers who agreed to speak to Al Jazeera, admitted that in their force some sort of quota system existed.
Paying it can mean getting a safe or lucrative beat or up-to-date basic equipment. Others told Al Jazeera that in their forces, it also extended to getting a promotion.
For a promotion it “goes from 20,000 pesos to 100,000 pesos (roughly $1,000 to $5,000) depending on the level of the position that you want,” said Ramos Mendez, who is also a spokesman for the National Movement for Security and Justice, a civil society group that claims to consist of around 2,500 active and retired police officers.
The Mexico City public security department told Al Jazeera it knew of no cases of officers paying superiors for promotions, and that if they did exist, then they would be extremely rare and punished severely within the department.
Last year, NGO Causa En Comun, which works with police forces across the country, surveyed nearly 5,000 state and federal police officers about their working conditions.
“We’ve been told by some officers that they’ve been asked by their chiefs to give them $1,000 so they can have a higher rank or to not be assigned to a very dangerous neighbourhood,” Marcela Figueroa, one the Causa En Comun investigators, told Al Jazeera.
According to National Movement for Security and Justice and Causa En Comun, it’s not just the officers who must pay, but also the public, who end up paying bribes called “mordidas” (bites) to police so that they can hand over the money their superiors demand.
The most notorious and regular cases involve police stopping motorists for alleged traffic infractions and getting mordidas off those who would rather not pay the fine.
According to Causa en Comun, officers regularly take their own cut of the money exhorted from civilians. This may be in part due to the often meager salaries they receive, even by Mexican standards.
About 45 percent of the police officers Causa En Comun surveyed said that they received a salary of less than $600 a month. About 89 percent said they’d never received a bonus or formal recognition for their work. However, those are state and federal forces. Many municipal police receive far lower salaries, according to Causa en Comun.
This makes low-level police officers especially vulnerable to the overtures of the many criminal organisations operating in Mexico, especially at the municipal level.
“If you get paid 200 bucks a month, and organised crime comes and gives you $1,000 a month, of course, you’re going to take it,” Figueroa said.
This has happened in multiple documented cases. Most notoriously in September 2014, when 43 students were taken by municipal police working with a drug gang. The students were never seen again, an act that horrified the country.
In Allende, a small town in the Northern state of Coahuila, a report by human rights activists and academics showed the Zetas cartel had paid off the entire police force with about $5,000 dollars a month in the lead up to committing a drawn-out massacre in 2011 in which nearly 200 people were killed. In other places, entire police forces have had to be detained or disbanded because of widespread corruption.
This has led to widespread distrust in the police. About 68 percent of the members of the public surveyed by the National Institute for Statistics and Geography in 2017 said they saw the municipal police as corrupt. About 48 percent said they were untrustworthy.
Not enough guns, broken down cars
Officers who spoke to Al Jazeera say that they are ill-equipped to improve that perception, because they lack the basic equipment and training to do their job.
“There’s not enough arms to go round, supposedly,” said one officer in the municipality of Cuautitlan Izcalli in the State of Mexico, one of the most violence entities in the country.
“Just look at how we patrol,” he told Al Jazeera, standing by the side of his patrol car.
He added he had been told there weren’t enough radios either.
“We just work with the ones they leave us,” he said, adding that if he became aware of any crime, his only method to call it in was with his mobile phone.
The officer didn’t want to give his name, indicating he was being watched.
Another officer who also didn’t want to be identified in Tijuana, the border city with more than 900 murders so far this year, said many officers had to buy bullets smuggled in from across the border.
“There are colleagues who have families that are residents in the US and they buy boxes of shells, bring them back in secret and let us know via the Whatsapp group that they’ve got them,” he told Al Jazeera .
“Logically, if it’s cost them 20 dollars they sell them to us at 40 dollars. It’s their profit for bringing the shells here,” he added.
Authorities in Tijuana did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
It’s not just weapons and munitions that are lacking. Francisco Esquivel Romero, who also served in Cuautitlan Izcalli, had to push start his police pick-up truck every day at the age of 58, because the battery was run down.
“My superiors always told me the same thing – put up with it or buy it [a new battery] yourself,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Just like everything else,” he said.
“If a tyre went flat, you had to pay for the patch; change of oil – we did it ourselves; when there wasn’t enough gas, we needed to buy it ourselves.”
Eventually, he suffered a spinal injury from his exertions in starting the truck and was discharged on medical grounds.
If a tyre went flat, you had to pay for the patch; change of oil - we did it ourselves; when there wasn't enough gas, we needed to buy it ourselves.
Authorities in Cuautitlan Izcalli told Al Jazeera in an email that the police “have the necessary equipment to cover the requirements of the 688 officers”.
The two-page statement also added that there are enough radio transmitters and bullets for each officer and that the police officers “don’t pay for car repairs”.
The complaints from officers in Cuautitlan Izcalli and Tijuana are consistent with what the NGO surveying police – Causa en Comun – found to be a nationwide problem in equipping and training police.
A quarter of the almost 5,000 state and federal officers Causa en Comun questioned said they had to pay for car repairs from their own pocket, 41 percent said they had to buy boots from their own salary and 38 percent had to pay for their own uniforms.
The organisation told Al Jazeera that they believe the municipal police, who weren’t included in the survey, are working in worse conditions.
Additionally, Causa en Comun also found that police in 13 out of Mexico’s 32 entities don’t have the full set of benefits that should go with a government job.
Police are blocked by law from forming unions in Mexico, so they have little power to push from below for those benefits or better equipment, pay and training.
Hollow talk of police reform
Successive presidents have talked about improving police working conditions and standards, but those promises have rarely turned into actions.
The current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, and his predecessor, Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, both pushed a plan to establish one police force in each state – phasing out more than a 1,000 municipal police forces – seen as the least professional and most corrupt in the country. The plan was called Mando Unico or one command, but it has been repeatedly blocked by Congress.
Marcela Figueroa of Causa en Comun said that behind the continued rhetoric from the country’s leaders on police reform, there’s a fundamental lack of political will and that the past two administrations have instead relied on the armed forces to quell outbreaks of violence.
“A police force takes a lot of money, a lot of time and effort,” she said.
“Of course, it’s easier if you’re just taking office to call the [federal] government and they’re going to send you 2,000 military officers and you’re not going to develop your own police.”
And while authorities have continued to depend on the army and navy, the murder rate has rocketed upward. It’s currently the highest in two decades, surpassing even what was previously the bloodiest year of the drug war in 2011.
President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said he is going to change the strategy. He plans to take the military off the streets and develop a training plan so that the police can take their place. He has said that officers will also be better paid.
But the strategy has yet to be defined in detail and Lopez Obrador is still more than four months away from taking office.
Meanwhile, Ismael Ramos Mendez says that he will continue to fight for a well-equipped non-corrupt police force, if not for his generation, but for his three children, all of whom want to be police officers.
“That’s what drives me on,” he said.
“I want them to be part of a clean, professional institution, not like the one now.”