Book Project

Patrolling for Profit: Police Malfeasance, Reform and Democratization in Latin America

The Problem of Police Malfeasance

Why are some country’s police forces more corrupt than others?  What policy initiatives can turn an abusive police force into one that protects and serves citizens?  What explains the variation in the levels of police malfeasance in the Americas?  Conventional arguments state that locally controlled police which emphasize lower levels of professionalization promote better police behavior because they better attuned to the needs of the common person.  Instead, I argue that centralizing control over police and emphasizing strong professional standards is the key to better policing.  To test this argument, the book employs a structural and institutional analysis rooted in a qualitative research design with evidence from 62 in-depth interviews, surveys, and archival research conducted over nine months in Chile, Colombia, and Mexico.

The Argument of the Book

Patrolling for Profit addresses a central puzzle: if police are supposed to serve and protect, then why do they often rob and abuse? In my book, I argue that two things help explain nefarious police behavior. First, when a country’s police are locally controlled, there will be more police abuse.  Locally controlled police forces are highly susceptible to being used for political purposes because of control by lower level politicians.  Furthermore, locally controlled police are generally locally funded police; hence there will be an inherent inequality in police services. Wealthier cities will have more resources to professionalize their police than poorer ones.  As such, developing countries, where most cities are poor, will always have weak police interested in stealing and abusing citizens to earn a livable wage commensurate with the risk they take. Conversely, when police are controlled not by cities, but by national authorities, police abuse and corruption will be reduced. In a system where national level politicians control the police, they have more reasons to avoid controversies and the illicit use of police forces for politicized purposes. Furthermore, national governments tend to have stronger coercive and taxation capacity, and hence have more available resources to develop high-quality police forces. In short, countries with a national police force are most often better off than those with local police forces.

            Second, in this book, I claim that the way a country structures its police labor has pronounced effects on how they behave.  Countries that treat police labor like an occupation/trade employ their police like construction workers, factory workers, and gardeners.   As such they are not well remunerated, have poor recruitment, meager training, and inadequate oversight. In this context, the occupational model officer has an incentive to rob because they are not paid well. Corruptible officers do not get weeded out during the training, and don’t fear being caught because of weak oversight.  When a country structures its police labor as occupational, then there will be more police abuse of authority.  Conversely, when a nation treats its police labor as a profession like architects or lawyers, by paying them and providing strong training and oversight, then police malfeasance will also decrease.   I ultimately find that police with lower levels of malfeasance also have nationally-organized and professionalized police systems.  Decentralized systems, on the other hand, have inferior resources to create professional models of police, and thus will have higher levels of police abuse.   

Case Selection

Through this work, I study the evolution of policing in Chile, Colombia, and Mexico.  I chose Chile because it has a police force [called the Carabineros de Chile] that exhibits low levels of abuse, corruption, and high levels of trust.  With the Chilean case study, I trace the historical evolution from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and find that the Carabineros’ success in developing a less corrupt and less abusive police force is rooted in strong trends towards centralization and professionalization. I selected the case of Colombia because it also has a police force that has drastically reduced corruption and increased citizen trust within a difficult context of drug trafficking, civil war, violent criminal activity, and weak state capacity.  The Colombians were able to make their police less malfeasant by centralizing and professionalizing their police force.  Therefore, Colombia and Chile represent contextually different cases that have dealt with different security threats, but both have national and professional police systems.  I trace police development  in both Chile and Colombia and uncover a common theme:  both started with local mayoral control over their police in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which resulted in using the police for political ends and undermined police professionalization. Both countries decided to centralize authority and to increase police professionalization. The third case I study is Mexico, which shares many of the security challenges. However, the Colombian police are more trustworthy, less malfeasant, and rated higher by their society in public opinion polling than their Mexican counterparts. Why is this the case? As I illustrate, Mexico has developed a decentralized police system that has hampered professionalization reforms. 

Scholarly Contribution

My argument contributes to several debates in political science, sociology, police administration, public security, and public administration.  First, my book speaks to scholarly works in various disciplines that study police administration where researchers have argued that decentralized policing would reduce police malfeasance (Glebeek 2009).  Other scholars have instead argued that centralizing police administration would produce better police (Pion-Berlin and Trinkunas 2011; Sabet 2010) A second scholarly debate relates to the idea of bureaucratic-professionalization, where some view the rationalization of police bureaucracy as the most effective method for public administration, while others view it as hampering deliveries for service.  In the policing literature, professionalization reduces police malfeasance (Bullock and Trombley, 1999) while a different set of scholars argue that professionalization in policing increases police malfeasance (Slansky, 2013; Bayley and Shearing).   This book also addresses the debates about how police militarization (Hill, Beger and Zanetti 2007), levels of crime (Sherman 1978), cultural contexts (Kuykendall and Roberg 1993), colonial origins, regime types, and religious foundations Treisman (2000) relate to police malfeasance.  

            There are several reasons why I am the best person to write this book.  First, I am fluent in Spanish and of Mexican descent.  This allowed me to navigate the Latin American bureaucracy as well as social mores surrounding the delicate issue of police reform in a way that many other people cannot.  I took advantage of these skills when I conducted nine months of field research in Chile, Mexico, and Colombia to write this book. The extended period of research in each country allowed me to develop a contextually rich understanding of policing in each case.  This is something that few other researchers have the privilege of doing and enhances my book in a unique way.  Second, in each case I gained elite interviews of government and non-government officials to provide a rich narrative on contemporary issues in police in each country. In Chile, I interviewed twenty-seven retired and active high-ranking officers and politicians and gathered information from freedom of information acts, and legal documentation through the National Library of Chile.  I was also able to visit a police station to observe how police live.  In Colombia, I able to interview seventeen retired officers and community organizers, and I was able to run a focus group with forty police officers at the National Police Post-Graduate School.  In Colombia I also did a week-long police ride along in Medellin.  In Mexico, I was able to gather information from seven interviews with academics and non-profit organizations as well as freedom of information requests.  Lastly, my narrative is strengthened by the extensive use of archival and secondary resources that allow me to speak to a broader evolutionary process not analyzed in other books on policing in Latin America.  Given my Spanish surname and knowledge of bureaucracy, I was able to take advantage of these country’s freedom of information laws to gain direct information from government ministries which many researchers simply are not aware of nor have the capacity to engage with.  Thus, the cases of Chile and Colombia have historical comparisons that refines academic understanding of the evolution of police.  By focusing attention on structure and organization of labor, this study adds a new theoretical perspective that accounts for the variation in police behavior in a systematic way.  

            Based on this empirical analysis, I advance both theoretical and empirical debates on policing in significant ways.  First, my project provides a comparative analysis outside of the well studied context of the European and American cases by looking towards Latin America.  Second, most of the research above takes on a contemporaneous analysis of police in the late 20th early 21st century police whereas my work provides a detailed historical analysis of the police in Chile and Colombia going back to the 19th century.  Lastly, most of the analyses on police reform pay scant attention to the structure of a police system and the organization of police labor, while I utilize both structure and labor at the center of this work.  Although a few books have recently begun exploring this terrain, these books do not focus on the police explicitly and instead look at public security and violence more broadly (The State on the Streets by Mercedes Hinton, Mexico’s Unrule of Law by Niels Uildrik, Violent Democracies in Latin America Daniel Goldstein and Enrique Desmond Arias eds.).


            This book will have wide appeal in the fields of Political Science, Sociology, Criminology and Public Administration.  The book’s layout and narrative format prove appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate courses in Comparative Politics, Latin American politics, civil-military relations, criminal justice, public security, and public administration. This book is written with four scholarly and policy audiences in mind.  First, this book reaches out to scholars of state development who would learn how it is that police services have evolved in each case I present in the book (e.g. Miguel Centeno, Blood and Debt ; Fernando Lopez Alvez, State Formation and Democracy in Latin America, 1810-1900; His-Huey Lian, The Rise of Modern Police and European State System).  Second, my theoretical argument is written to directly engage scholars of decentralization (e.g. Alfred Montero and David Samuels, Decentralization and Democracy in Latin America; Merilee Grindle, Going Local: Decentralization, Democratization and the Promise of Good Governance). Third, Patrolling for Profit is written for audiences interested in police reform in developing countries (e.g., Daniel Sabet, Police Reform in Mexico; John Bailey and Lucia Dammert Public Security and Police Reform in the Americas; Steve Savage Police Reform: Forces for Change), international influences on policing (e.g., Martha Huggins, Political Policing, David Bayley Changing of the Guard: Developing Democratic Police Abroad); and policing in democratic societies (David Sklansky, Democracy, and the Police; Mark Ungar, Policing Democracy,). Fourth and more broadly, Patrolling for Profit offers valuable contributions to the field of civil-military relations in Latin American, by highlighting the equally important role of police reform in consolidating the rule of law and democracy in post-authoritarian transitions  (Elusive Reform: Democracy and the Rule of Law in Latin America by Mark Ungar). 


Each of the chapters has already been drafted and are undergoing revisions for submission.  .  The current manuscript contains six chapters with approximately 72,000 words, and 250 double-spaced pages (both totals include figures and bibliography).  This is a revised dissertation.  I have completely overhauled the dissertation to better suit a wider audience by doing the following.  First, I broke down the introductory chapter into two chapters: one that frames policing and its policy implications.  The other chapter is purely a theoretical chapter, where I removed the literature review and revised the material for clarity.  Second, for the chapters on Chile, Colombia and Mexico, I not only heavily revised it for readability, but also removed substantial portions that were better suited for the comparative section.  I added new material to bring each of the cases up to date as well.  As such, the book represent a different treatment of the same subject of the dissertation, emphasizing a stronger narrative, clearer sentences, less jargon, and broader framing in sociology, criminology, and history to increase the potential readership.

Chapter Overview

Chapter 1. The Crisis of Policing in the Americas 

This chapter introduces the broad scope of police malfeasance and how it reaches into the core of democratic civil liberties and civil rights.  With this broad framing, I center on the importance of the cases of Chile, Colombia, and Mexico.  I then introduce the core argument of the book that both centralization and professionalization can substantially reduce police malfeasance.  I link this argument to the greater tradition of Weberian political thought on bureaucracy.  This chapter also reviews alternative arguments put forth by other scholars that also seek to explain police malfeasance. This chapter concludes by framing the importance of the research question to both policy and academic interests.

Chapter 2.  Do Not Ever Try to Bribe the Chilean Police: The Development of the Best Police Force in Latin America How did the Chilean Carabineros become the least corrupt and most trusted police in Latin America?  In this chapter I trace six major police reform periods from 1880 to the present that changed the structure and labor model of policing and assess the impact these reforms had on police behavior.  Overall, Chile goes from an unprofessional and decentralized model of police, towards a national professional model, which leads to decrease abuse and corruption.

Case: Chile 1880-Present

Chapter 3. From Murder Capital of Latin America to a Disney Cruise Destination: The National Police and the Rebirth of the Colombian State 

How did the Colombian national police go from one of the most corrupt and abusive police forces in Latin America to one with lower levels of malfeasance?  In this chapter I trace police reforms in Colombia from 1846-Present.  The general trend I find in this chapter is that as Colombia does away with local police through nationalization, and improves their police professionalism, then abuse of authority also declines.

Case:  Colombia 1846-Present

Chapter 4.  A Country for Bad Hombres: The Normalization of Police Corruption and Abuse in Mexico

Why are the Mexican Federal police less corrupt and abusive than state and municipal police in Mexico?  In this part of the book I provide a historical view of police development in Mexico and a thorough contemporary comparison of city police, state police, and national police forces in Mexico.    I use this chapter to reinforce the argument that national police forces that are more professional fare better than their local and unprofessional counterparts.

Cases: Mexican Municipal Police, Mexican State Police, and Mexican Federal Police 1990-Present.

Chapter 5. Conclusion: Comparing 21st Century Policing in Chile, Colombia, and Mexico

I close the book by comparing the countries of Chile, Colombia, and Mexico along their degree of centralization and police professionalization.  The comparison illustrates that despite being very similar in terms of violence and the criminal security context, the Colombian police fare much better than their Mexican counterparts, and confirms that the Chilean and Colombian system of centralized and professionalized police format produce lower levels of police malfeasance.   In the final section of this chapter I discuss policy recommendations for police reform based on the cases I have analyzed.  I pay special attention to highlighting how the findings of my book can be applied to understanding and addressing police malfeasance in the United States.


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