Mexican culture doesn’t have much room for fiction about criminal investigations or the solving of crimes by the police.

There have been some significant crime novels, notably the series written by Paco Ignacio Taibo II starring the private detective, Hector Belascoaran Shayne. But investigative victories by the police? The mere idea of a Mexican Hercule Poirot sounds unreal. This isn’t much of a mystery, either, considering the nature, in general at least, of the Mexican police and its procedures.

Here’s an example. About 30 years ago, a kidnapping and murder in Mexico City deeply disturbed the public. The perpetrator turned out to be a vicious member of an upper middle-class family; the victim was a young girl. The wave of indignation was such that the crime and its aftermath were featured on the front pages of newspapers and as the lead story of broadcasts. The killer was quickly arrested and, a few days later, died by hanging while in custody. The official cause of death was suicide but it was generally recognized that other prisoners, in cahoots with prison authorities, had settled the case long before trial.

In a country without the death penalty and where a suspect with money to spend can hire an excellent lawyer and perhaps even offer appropriately directed bribes, investigation, conviction and adequate punishment might have been difficult to achieve even in so horrifying a case. No matter. What we called “the system,” unconcerned with mere “legality,” had its own way of doing things, its own version of “justice.”

Idiosyncratic and Natural

We knew this “system” was corrupt. And yet some illustrious political scientists outside the country (who studied us with the curiosity of entomologists) saw this corruption as something interesting, idiosyncratic, natural and even positive. They would call it “the oil that lubricates the machine” and argue that in “developing societies” corruption within a hegemonic party (like the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, during its 71 years in power) was preferable to an open dictatorship or anarchy.

What they or their Mexican counterparts failed to note or admit was that such governments accustomed their people to illegality and personal power as a way of life. Nor did they propose the remedy of a transition to true electoral democracy.

This notorious case was a good example of how this system functioned in the area of criminal justice. The criminal’s rapid identification and arrest were surely a product of information obtained through the underworld connections of the police (the use of informers is common in all criminal-justice systems). But the utterly personal chain of command was a distinct feature of the pre-democratic Mexican “system.”

Alarmed by all the media uproar, the president of Mexico would have summoned his secretary of the interior and the order to give this case special attention would have then been passed down to a sub-secretary of the interior, and from there to the director of national security, to the police chief of Mexico City and on to the police officers who carried out the arrest.

Each level of communication involved a direct or implicit menace. Heads would roll if this child-murderer remained at large. And so he was arrested swiftly and the case ended with what was, in effect, a modernized application of the Latin-American ley de fuga (law of flight), the summary execution of a prisoner justified, in its classic form, as a response to his “attempt to escape.”

Democratic Transition

The transition to democracy in 2000 dismantled “the system,” though it had already begun to change during the previous decade. But its traces remain.

I once heard a recent secretary of the interior complain that his predecessors hadn’t left him their files. It’s an open question whether those files ever existed on paper or whether -- more likely -- only as notations in the minds of certain officials, such as the celebrated Fernando Gutierrez Barrios, who was at the center of power and controlled secret intelligence for PRI governments off and on for 40 years. He was a distinguished gentleman with an extremely keen and shrewd intelligence. On the one occasion when I had a chance to speak with him at length, he seemed to know everything related to political or criminal violence in Mexico. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he were the decision maker behind the rapid arrest (and perhaps even the ultimate fate) of that murderer.

Unpunished, or as the subject of a protracted search chronicled in the media, the crime might have raised doubts about the power of the state. For that reason, and not in the first place for the sake of law or of justice, this assault and murder of a child, a crime considered by the public as beyond any acceptable bounds, was moved to the forefront of police concerns.

Despite the reputation for corruption of the Mexican police, it is by no means true that all officers were or are corrupt; nor has the penal code, then or now, been simply ignored. But under the PRI’s hegemony, justice was subordinated to the needs of central power, especially in those areas that were felt to compromise national security: highly publicized crimes; the activities of guerilla groups; and, of course, the traffic in narcotics.

The arrival of democracy had a centrifugal impact on this “system.” The effect was beneficial but could also serve the interests of more localized corruption, among politicians, criminals and various elements of the police. A decision was therefore taken to reconstruct the police, from the ground up and beginning at the federal level.

It is vital that the next president and Congress (which will be formed by midyear elections) accelerate this process. The proposal that makes the most sense is the reconfiguring of the police into 32 state forces closely linked with the center. The task of this new force would be to eliminate the corrupt procedures left over from the heyday of the “system” and implement the ethical rules and practical methods of controlling crime within the rule of law.

Perhaps then we would experience the minor, but satisfying, added benefit of good fiction featuring the efforts of upright and admirable police officers.

(Enrique Krauze, the author of “Mexico: Biography of Power” and “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Enrique Krauze at ekrauze@prodigy.net.mx

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net