Q&A: Former Sacramento police chief Venegas works to reform criminal justice in Mexico

Arturo Venegas, who served as Sacramento’s chief of police from 1993 to 2003, spent most of the last three years in Mexico helping to professionalize Mexico’s criminal justice system, notorious for its corruption and lack of transparency.

Venegas, 65, emigrated from Mexico with his family at age 9 and picked tomatoes and strawberries in the fields of Santa Maria. He went on to a 33-year career in the Fresno and Sacramento police departments, then studied the impact of immigration reform on criminal justice.

Now a senior law enforcement consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice, Venegas has visited 23 of Mexico’s 31 states and returned to the town he was born – San Nicolas de Ibarra on Lake Chapala in the state of Jalisco. He recently reflected on the profound changes he witnessed and the challenges ahead in a nation he said is showing signs of rebirth but is still riven by drug cartels, growing vigilante violence and woefully underpaid, undereducated police forces plagued with nepotism and bribery.

Why did you decide to move to Mexico, where Congressman Gabriel Gomez was kidnapped and burned to death in Guadalajara on Sept. 22 and an estimated 90,000 people have been killed in drug and gang-related violence since the government announced a crackdown in 2006?

Some of my friends and family thought I was absolutely crazy for doing it, but a good friend in law enforcement said I could help transform law enforcement and help millions in the country I was born in – and one we are intimately connected to economically. My job wasn’t to attack the cartels, it was to assist Mexican law enforcement agencies in establishing professional standards.

There are about 50,000 federal officers and 450,000 state and local cops. In some states they get $200-$300 a month and ask themselves, “Do I really want to get killed for $200 a month?” The starting salary for a cop in Sacramento is about $6,000-$7,000 a month with retirement and health benefits.

What caught you by surprise?

I was in Sinaloa with a federal law enforcement official who had just received 10 kids who had come out of the police academy in Mexico City. He told them to go get the car, and one of the kids said, “Sir, I really don’t know how to drive a car. At the academy all we had was a simulator.” I asked, “How the hell does this happen?” and the commander said most people in Mexico City don’t have cars and have never driven in their lives. So the commander went back to vehicle training in the field.

We took 20 police academy directors and local commanders to the Oregon State Police Academy shooting range and they asked how many rounds the cadets get. The range master said, “no less than 3,000 rounds.” They looked at us in total shock and disbelief. Most cops in Mexico shoot 50 rounds during their entire academy training, and some of them don’t get back to retrain for five years or more.

You’re now in a firefight without enough ammunition or you don’t know how to use the weapon correctly. And you have to actually get the ammunition through the military in Mexico. You can’t just call Smith & Wesson and say I want to buy 5,000 rounds and/or weapons. Meanwhile the cartels bring their drugs into the U.S. and exchange them for money and guns. Municipal officials have been killed with AK-47s, which are manufactured in Russia.

How is Mexico trying to reform its criminal justice system?

In 2008, they amended the constitution from an accusatory system to an inquisitional system, like ours. Before, you were guilty until proven innocent, there was no bail and they could lock you up for six months and then decide whether to go to trial or release you. Now, before they arrest you, they have to investigate and present evidence. But all the police have to be taught this new process, everything from crime-scene investigations to how to testify in court.

In the past, the judge automatically assumed all the evidence the prosecutors presented was correct. By 2016, all police and courts must go to the new innocent-until-proven-guilty system. Crime labs have to meet modern standards. Federal officers need at least a B.A. Some local cops don’t know how to read and write. But if they are taken out of police service, they still have to feed their kids and make their house payments, so some go to work for cartels.

What is being done about corruption?

One courageous governor hired retired Mexican military to fight the corruption, but he and others have to walk around with a security force of literally 20 people, at great personal risk. Cartels have infiltrated local governments, control building permits and drain money through protection rackets. In some towns if you’re going to build a prison you have to pay the cartels to build it – it sounds ludicrous, but it’s true. Now some small towns are forming their own “self-defense” forces. But some are vigilantes, and in Colombia, some of these militias turned into drug organizations.

How can these endemic problems be solved?

Everybody’s looking for that magic bullet, but there is no magic bullet; it’s a mess that’s going to take a hell of a long time to get out of. It’s been more than 80 years since J. Edgar Hoover began reforming the FBI and police practices, and there are still major U.S. police departments under federal consent decrees mandating reforms. Mexico is now going through a vetting process where every two years every cop, judge, prosecutor and government official has to take a polygraph test and a psychological test. If the examiner says your salary can’t justify why you’re living in such a nice house or driving such a nice car, that’s enough to flunk you, and you automatically get fired.

The examiners themselves have to get vetted, and Mexico also passed its own Freedom of Information Act. They’re trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. We hope we’ve been able to help them change the culture now so one cop will tell another, “You can’t break the law in front of me. I will not permit you to behave in a way that hurts a citizen; it’s putting my life and reputation in jeopardy.” Things will change when officers themselves hold their colleagues accountable and a citizen can say, “You want me to pay a bribe or you take my car, fine, let’s go talk to your commander or a judge.”

They recognize it’s a Herculean task, but they are up to it. It’s going to take another 20 years, but technology’s helping. They can do crime analysis on computers, monitor cellphone communications and put computers and cameras in police cars. The whole country’s in the process of transformation. BMW and Mercedes have plants, and Nissan just announced they’ll be building all Sentras in Aguascalientes. Skyscrapers are going up, highways are being built and there’s a boom in education and social services, as well as economic development. In the eyes of many, Mexico’s still considered a third-world country, but it’s not. Mexico is absolutely a safe place to travel, and I’m going back for several weeks of vacation and exploration.