Law enforcement changes in a new administration

rural cop
Canvassing the people on the beat. Photo by the Policia Nacional.

Former police chief, now security minister, making some changes

by Eric Jackson

Rolando Mirones was director of the National Police during the Martín Torrijos administration, then during the PRD’s decade-long wanderings in the political wilderness of opposition dedicated himself to private pursuits, one of which was getting his LLM in comparative law at the University of San Diego.

Now he comes back to head a ministry that did not exist back then, the Ministry of Public Security. (Ministerio de Seguridad Pública in Spanish, which might be translated into English as Ministry of Public Safety but with French Revolution connotations in many sectors of the world’s English-speaking peoples better to use “security.”) The present security ministry was carved out of the Ministry of Government and Justice in Martinelli times to take over most armed branches of the government, the biggest exception being the Institutional Protection Service (SPI), which remains part of the Ministry of the Presidency.

It’s a tangential “other story,” but the Torrijos administration was not squeaky clean. Then we had the five-year crime wave of Martinelli times and the sluggish and not too interested in cleaning things up Varela years. The bottom line, however, is that even if the problems are mostly in the political, prosecutorial and judicial spheres rather than in the police, those things all affect one another and Mirones came in with some messes to address.

Mirones was not a history major but surely he knows the history of his own party’s origins and would know how sensitive a matter police reforms can be. Back in 1968 Arnulfo Arias came to the Palacio de las Garzas intending to alter the promotion schedule — the institutional succession — of the old combination of military and police forces, the Guardia Nacional. That lasted about 11 days. There was a coup and the officer who ended up on top after a few months of power struggles was Omar Torrijos, founder of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).

But of course, Arnulfo had come briefly back into office after decades of bad blood between himself and his followers on the one hand and the Guardia Nacional on the other. Mirones, on the other hand, comes back to law enforcement as a known quantity to the veteran members of the forces and not as an institutional enemy. So he has begun making some changes at the command level, and proposing other shakeups in the government:

  • A number of senior officers were sent on vacation with the expectation of retirement after that instead of any return to the force.
  • Mirones has insisted that top officers pass physical fitness tests, which again is expected to send some of them into retirement.
  • The new minister alleges that a number of people were promoted to be subcommissioners without regard to the existing specified experience and testing, so this also is likely to thin the officer corps to be rebuilt.
  • There has long been a rotation system in Panamanian policing, justified for anti-corruption aim of preventing too-comfortable local relationships. Less explicitly the policy comes out of a recognition that police work has a high burnout rate and periodic changes of scenery will reduce this. However, over several administrations politicians have passed pro-corruption laws that prevent investigating officers in from talking to anyone other than prosecutors or judge about what they found out about elected officials’ behavior. The DIJ (Office of Judicial Investigation) officers probing public corruption, prohibited by law from talking about their work even with their superiors, have thus been kept out of the usual rotation for years. When Mirones reassigned them from the DIJ as part of restoring the traditional rotation there was a great hue and cry, but after some meetings it seems that the officers involved will notwithstanding any transfers not be completely pulled off of the ongoing cases.
  • One of the prior administrations’ favorite publicity stunts has been the creation of special units with badass uniforms and names. These creatures also sometimes tended to be routes around promotion rules, traditional rotations and the chain of command. Mirones may be shifting away from this. In Colon there was JTF Aguila, the joint task force with members of the National Police, the National Border Service (SENAFRONT), the National Aeronaval Service (SENAN), the National Migration Service and the SPI. The Migra and the SPI are not parts of the security ministry’s bailiwick like the other three agencies are. The approximately 300-member task force was said to be for the purpose of “suppressing and arresting crime in sensitive areas of the country.” In practice it was to show the young black men of Colon just how bad the cops are, mainly by surrounding and raiding whole neighborhoods. Mirones is reassigning all of the task force members back to their original units, while saying that police operations “with appropriate resources” will continue in Colon. Will he also break up other joint task forces, or leave the ones such as those for Carnival safety as is? It looks like a policy of going back to traditional organization, while still assigning units and individuals to work together with other branches.
  • Mirones has proposed the incorporation of the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, now a part of the Public Ministry under the Attorney General, into the National Police. There is a lot of resistance to this and it’s not just a turf battle among careerist types. Ricardo Martinelli’s unlawful pardon of cops who shot and killed young fishermen, and then planted a gun on them, might not have gotten even that far had the police possessed and used the power to direct forensic investigations against members of the force. But in many jurisdictions a mere separation of powers has not abolished that sort of abuse, while in some other places where the police investigate themselves they do so honorably and well. It tends to boil down to matters of personal integrity and institutional will.

Mirones is ordering many other redeployments and reallocations. He says that about half of the fleet of police vehicles were in disrepair when he became minister, and vows to set that situation right. He says that cops now assigned to guarding state institutions will be replaced by private security guards. He says that hundreds of officer who were doing desk jobs will be sent out onto the streets. Already we see that the use of police road stops, fallen into disfavor during the Varela administration, is back.

Community policing is made more difficult by the rotation system, but if the work is done that problem can be overcome. A lot of it is or can be mere institutional self-praise, but having cops who are known and trusted in the community means that the police force as a whole will be better informed about the situations with which they deal and people will be more likely to set aside fears or expectations that nothing will happen and report crimes. So Mirones has sent his officers out canvassing their beats, from visiting Colon shopkeepers to getting to know farmers in the Interior to teaching elementary school arithmetic to reconnecting with neighborhood watch groups. As in the face of policing being other human beings with a job of dealing with problems that you might have, rather than guns held by guys in ski masks.

Also in the field of reporting crimes or any other emergency, Mirones proposes to unify the various institutions’ emergency call switchboards into a single agency with a single number — 911, where as that’s currently only for a narrow band of emergencies. That was a work in progress that he inherited, with the facilities located in police headquarters even if the agency may end up somewhat apart from the National Police.

Call it efficiency or call it a power grab. If you call it winning hearts and minds, know that there have been downsides to this both in Panama and throughout Latin America. But for Public Security Minister Rolando Mirones, it’s his job.


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