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Professor offers insights on policing Baghdad

Draws parallels with Mexico City
Diane Davis
Diane Davis
MIT file photo / Donna Coveney

A new paper by MIT political sociologist Diane Davis draws surprising parallels between the challenges to establishing order and security in Baghdad in 2006, and those faced almost a century ago in Mexico City, right after the ouster of longtime dictator General Porfirio Diaz in 1910.

Davis' paper, "Policing, Regime Change and Democracy: Reflections From the Case of Mexico," also offers a cautionary tale to policymakers: Establishing security at the expense of civil rights can "set a country on a downwardly spiraling slippery slope of armed conflict and deteriorating rule of law," she writes.

Q: How are the cities of Baghdad today and Mexico City in 1910 similar?

A: Both have been capital cities caught in the crossfire of national struggles for regime change. Both cities also struggled with the general goal of establishing democracy in the face of conflicts over the new political order.

New political leaders in both cities and countries have had to replace the military with police forces. Both faced political turmoil and chaos following the departure of their former regime leaders, and citizens in both Mexico City and in Baghdad clamored for protection from violence and for a viable police force to restore domestic security.

As in Iraq today, in the face of a partially armed citizenry and a still unconsolidated regime change, Mexico's post-revolutionary political leaders had little recourse but to ��� patch together a rough and tumble police force comprised of personnel they thought they could trust. Many of the police were rural folk, with little understanding of policing, of city life, of the law or how to guarantee it.

Q: What are the limits to the comparison?

A: Iraq's regime change involved foreign invasion, followed by an occupation that contributed to sustained violence and security problems. Mexico's 1910 revolution, while also violent, was "home grown."

In Iraq, the tribal, ethnic and religious differences within the citizenry are greater, and they are exacerbated by the actions of external contesting forces. But this may be why the comparison is helpful: If the trade-offs between democracy and public security in a less divided and more insulated country like Mexico led it down a deeply troubled path, then one can expect an even more contested and virulent version of the same roadmap in contemporary Iraq.

Q: What happened when Mexico prioritized public security over establishing democratic institutions?

A: Along with introducing arms and other violent means of guaranteeing social order and political power, it empowered police and security forces in ways that isolated them from political accountability and legal sanction. Both developments laid the foundation for that country's descent into chaos, still in evidence today in high levels of police corruption and a near-absence of a viable rule of law.

The trade-offs Mexico made between democracy and public security established neither, and policies made to protect the citizenry from the counter-revolutionary challenges of the old dictatorship ultimately led to the development of a new, perhaps more insidious, form of non-democracy built around a rotting edifice of police corruption and abuse of power.

Q: What does the Mexican post-revolutionary case show about the perils in forming new police forces?

A: Mounting new policing operations while democratic regime change is under way usually entails a vicious purging of old police forces and the assembly of new ones, two difficult tasks in which it is frequently hard to know which citizens can be trusted to protect the new regime against the old, and in which the new police that are chosen may have little of the expertise necessary to secure the rule of law.

Q: What about relying on the military to keep order?

A: Mexico's new regime learned the hard way the importance of establishing a local police force. President Francisco I. Madero, who took the reins of state power from the dictator Porfirio Diaz in 1912, was assassinated a year later in an attempted military coup. Some say the biggest mistake Madero made was his failure to completely disband the Mexican army.

Among the most worrisome developments in Iraq that seem to parallel the Mexican case are the clear involvement of military in the tasks of policing. The disbanding of the Iraqi army released into society almost 300,000 Iraqi soldiers who simply went home with their weapons in the face of the American-led invasion. As militias -- the temporary guarantors of order -- they have exacerbated the militarization of ethnic differences and reinforced the climate of violence and instability.

Q: What contemporary lessons does the Mexican post-revolutionary era offer?

A: First, violence begets violence. In Iraq, tolerating militias with particular ethnic and religious identities in the hope of greater security in the short term has meant the vicious cycle of coercion began again. The biggest casualties are not just peace and security, but also democracy.

If the new regime leadership could focus first on building state institutions and making them accountable, transparent and pluralistic, Iraqi society might get just enough breathing space to exit from the chaos, disorder and conflict.

Also, if the creation of a new police system were to be acknowledged as the first in many steps of democratic nation-building, rather than as a strategy for targeting and suppressing enemies, the country may be set on a much more auspicious path.

Q: How would you like your research to be used?

A: My hope is that such knowledge will generate policy insights to help administrators and police practitioners learn from history, so that Iraq and other contemporary countries experiencing violent regime change can avoid the pitfalls that befell countries like Mexico, nations that have tried democratic regime change but have been sidelined by failures.

Davis' research was supported by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Her paper will be published in a forthcoming book, "Challenges of Policing in the 21st Century," edited by Dilip Das.

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