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What Mexico’s Police Force Can Teach Us About Ours

Filmmaker Alonso Ruizpalacios talks about his documentary ‘A Cop Movie,’ which combines actors and real-life police officers to explore how hard it is to be a good cop in a corrupt system — no matter what country you live in

The opening of A Cop Movie, which comes to Netflix today, shows us something rather extraordinary: A Mexican police officer, María Teresa Hernández Cañas — she goes by Teresa — responds to a call, quickly discovering that she’s going to have to help a very pregnant woman give birth in her home. (The paramedics are too far away, and this baby is coming any second now.) Teresa is small in stature, but the determined look on her face suggests that, although she’s never delivered a newborn, she’s up for anything. And sure enough, all goes well: In a moment of panic, she’s a calm, composed hero. 

Still, viewers may wonder about A Cop Movie’s agenda. Does anyone really need another film that celebrates the bravery of law enforcement in the age of Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police? But the more you watch A Cop Movie, the clearer it becomes that director Alonso Ruizpalacios has some twists in store. The first is that, soon after, we see valiant Teresa accepting bribes while on the job. Later, we discover that Teresa isn’t actually Teresa — we’ve been following Mónica Del Carmen, an actress playing Teresa, lip syncing the real cop’s documentary interviews and essentially embodying her on screen. So what precisely is going on?

Combining dramatized scenes with nonfiction, A Cop Movie cannily deconstructs the elements of the typical cop movie — the scenes of on-the-street heroism, the predictably grueling academy training — while being clear-eyed about the corruption that impacts even the most seemingly honest police officers. Teresa admits that she takes bribes, but in her mind there’s justification — she’s required to pay out her superiors — and she’s joined in that rationale by her cop husband José de Jesús Rodriguez Hernández, who goes by Montoya. (He, too, is played by an actor, Raúl Briones.) 

While all that may sound overly contrived — or excessively cutesy — Ruizpalacios adds these meta layers to make us think about how we perceive cops on screen, and how being a real-life cop requires a degree of performance. In a sense, cops are really role-playing as cops, taking on a part that they’ve learned from watching movies. 

A Cop Movie premiered at the Berlin Film Festival back in March, and since then Ruizpalacios has traveled the globe showing audiences his docufiction hybrid, astonished that, no matter where he is on the planet, viewers commiserate with its depiction of corruption. “The common [reaction] is this huge gap of mistrust between citizens and the police who are meant to protect them,” he tells me over a Zoom call from his home in Mexico City. 

But that doesn’t mean that bad cops look the same everywhere. During our conversation, Ruizpalacios discusses the differences between Mexican and American police — plus why he thinks his country’s law enforcement should serve as a warning for anyone championing Defund the Police in the U.S. And to those who might accuse A Cop Movie of being copaganda because of its nuanced portrayal of the profession, well, that’s something he’s been wrestling with since he first conceived the project.  

In the U.S., Mexican police are always depicted in movies and TV shows as corrupt and dangerous — they’ll throw you in jail for the smallest thing if you don’t bribe them. Growing up in Mexico, how close was that fictional portrayal to your actual impression of the police?

It’s not dissimilar to what you described — it’s a part of your daily life. Mistrust is the main emotion that you grow up with toward the police. Of course, there are exceptions — there are communities where things have evolved in a good way and there’s a closer relationship between cops and the people. But generally, you grow up with that fear. 

The murder of George Floyd highlighted the racial bias endemic in American law enforcement. From A Cop Movie, I didn’t get the impression that that’s as big a problem in Mexico. 

The interesting thing that I’ve found — and this is just my perception — is that it’s almost the opposite as in America [in terms of how] racism operates. From what I can sense from American cops, there’s a strong racial bias — they’re straight going after the most vulnerable groups. Here, I think the race factor manifests itself from the citizens toward the cops, which is really interesting and strange. 

Most [Mexican cops] are from indigenous backgrounds — they have a very low level of education, they come from really low-income families. And so there is a very strong — it’s quite cruel — racism that goes [on], but it’s from the citizens [toward] the police force. They’re treated like servants here in Mexico. A cop stops you, and immediately the average citizen who’s in a car has an attitude of superiority toward the cop — whereas I feel, in the few encounters that I’ve had with cops in the U.S., it’s been the opposite. You feel they definitely have the upper hand. 

One of the interesting things that we found screening this movie in different parts of the world — we started in Berlin and we showed it in Denmark and then in Spain, in San Sebastian, and then in America, we went to all these places before it opened in Mexico — is that it was funny to have all these reactions before we had the reaction at home. But the common [reaction] is this huge gap of mistrust between citizens and the police who are meant to protect them. It’s a common trait.

Yeah, in America people are afraid of the police because they’re so well-armed. There’s an idea that our cops are bullies. It sounds like Mexican citizens don’t worry so much about that.

I think that’s the same in Latin America as well. We screened the film also in Peru, and I had a couple of conversations with people who saw the film, and they were like, “It’s exactly the same here.” There’s zero respect [for them] as an authority figure — they’re not taken seriously. So how do they enforce the law? Well, by any other means.

Mónica Del Carmen as Teresa

You’ve talked about the idea that cops are, essentially, like actors playing a role — that of a cop. I think we all play roles in our jobs — dressing up in the metaphorical uniform and mindset of our profession — but how is that attitude especially dangerous with cops?

At least what we found in Mexico is that they’re ill-equipped — it’s like a badly prepared actor. It’s six months training to be a cop — it used to be three — and [then] you can be out there on the streets with a gun. So the downsides are enormous. 

They’re bad at following protocols. For example, one of the things that we kept looking at — and in the end, [it] didn’t make it to the movie because it was so hard to show — was the way that the police force acts in Mexico when there’s public [demonstrations] and there’s violence. It always goes wrong because they haven’t been properly trained.

In Mexico City, it’s improved. But they’re not really trained like the military as one coordinated force, so it’s chaos every time there’s been public violence or [demonstrations] in the streets — it’s been proven how the training isn’t adequate. So there’s always police brutality — [they] break protocol because they don’t know the protocol. That’s why we decided to start the movie with these images in the title sequence [of cops in riot gear being violent] — it has a double function. One is to set the tone of 1970s cop movies, but more importantly, we wanted to show those photos of cops behaving badly. We wanted to establish a common ground with the audience saying, “We acknowledge that this is what we all think of when we think about the police, and this is real — this happens. And so now, let’s try to understand where that’s coming from.”

After George Floyd’s murder, Defund the Police became a popular rallying cry — and, along with that, there was a greater recognition that movies and TV shows often portray cops as heroes. A Cop Movie is partly a dissection of that tendency, but how did you make certain you weren’t, indirectly, doing a form of copaganda?

It’s something that we wrestled [with] throughout the whole movie. Something I was very wary of was not to fall into copaganda or an apology for the police, because that would just be insane. 

At the same time, I have to say, storytelling is such a privileged way of diving into somebody else’s life — and somebody’s life who’s very far from yours and who has very different motives. And so, it didn’t make sense to just make another movie [about bad cops]. When we started putting down the themes that we were going to touch on, we said, “Well, okay, so there’s cops who are involved in kidnapping or cops who’ve been processed for police brutality.” We looked at all those examples as possibilities of how to approach this, and for some reason, I was just like, “Yeah, but we know all that. We can read all of that in the newspaper.” It wouldn’t make sense to me to do [that]. Like a friend of mine says, “There are some movies that might as well have been tweets — you would have spared us all a couple of hours.” 

I think it’s a challenge to take the side of the victimizer and not of the victim. I recently saw a documentary — I’m not going to say which — but [it] was about the victims of a specific case. It was hitting one note all the time. [I] was like, “Okay, yeah, I agree — it’s impossible to disagree with anything you’re saying. These guys are victims — they’ve been abused. It’s a shame.” And that’s as far as a conversation went — whereas, if we would’ve seen the side of the victimizers, it could have been a more interesting debate. Then we would’ve understood their motives and so on. 

This is what we wanted to do with this movie — we wanted to look at what we think of as the bad guys and understand where they’re coming from. And, of course, it’s a fine line between doing copaganda — which I think we avoided, because you won’t end up making copaganda if you’re being honest. 

I think it all starts from Teresa and Montoya. In their interviews, they were very honest and open and saying, “Okay, we’ve been involved in bribing. We’ve been involved in all these things. There’s a reason for it, but we can’t deny that.” And there’s a moment where I ask Montoya — because he’s whining and saying how bad he feels [about] how people behave toward cops — “So are you just victims?” And when I asked him that, he says, “Well, no, we’re not.” I always find that very interesting — to put the victimizer in that position and to hear his side and make him own up to his involvement in what he’s done.

Raúl Briones and Del Carmen

Teresa is very upfront about the fact that she took bribes, and she explains that she had to pay her superiors. She’s unapologetic about it, but I sensed that you as a filmmaker were clear that her behavior was part of the problem. 

She does see it as a problem, but she’s very clear about “I have no choice.” You don’t have a choice if you’re in there and you’re getting paid this amount of money. By the way, we’ve been showing the movie in the U.S. and doing interviews there, and I’ve thought, “Well, I think defunding the police [in America] would look something like the police in Mexico, which is a disaster.” So I don’t think that’s the solution, either. Continuing to arm them and to apologize for them is definitely not the solution, but I don’t think defunding is the solution. 

We have different kinds of problems now that all of the budget for security is going to the military. That’s AMLO’s, our president’s, main plan: He’s doing a national guard and strengthening the national guard and putting everything on the national guard. But we’ve seen two terms ago, with Felipe Calderón, what militarization brings, what leaving public order to the military in a country like Mexico does, which is bloodshed. So all [our] advisors — we worked a lot with very smart people who work in research about reforming the police — they all agree: We don’t stand a chance without a strong police force. I think the issue is how to strengthen it and how to train it well and how to make it closer to the communities that they’re protecting. 

Here in Mexico, they call it policía de proximidad — proximity police, I guess — which is this idea of the neighborhood cop. Back in the day, it used to work, because the cop was protecting his neighbors, people that he actually knew. That tends to work much better. The police force that we shot a lot of the movie [with], the Neza [police], they have started implementing these programs — the cops go around, they have a couple of blocks each, and they introduce themselves to each household and exchange numbers. You know who your street cop is, and it’s been proven that it works so much better.

You have actors play Teresa and Montoya, and we watch them actually go through the academy training. Did you choose Mónica and Raúl because they embodied something about Teresa and Montoya? Or were they specifically interested in exploring the life of a police officer?

Maybe a little bit of both. In the case of Raúl, I worked with him a bunch because we have a theater company here in Mexico, him and me and a couple of other friends. He’s always been one of the bravest actors I know, and I knew I needed somebody brave. He’d done a play in Mexico City where they had to go and live in Tepito, which is one of the toughest neighborhoods in Mexico City, if not the toughest — which is actually where Montoya grew up. For this play, they had to live with a family from that neighborhood for two months — they made a play with a person in that family, learned about their lives. It was a very interesting experimental theater piece. Raúl has always been drawn to immersive experiences, but at the same time, I needed good actors — because not necessarily brave actors are good actors. I needed skill and somebody who’s very disciplined to be able to hit those lip syncs that we did. And Raúl, he’s very hardworking. 

Then he introduced me to Mónica, who he had done this theater piece with. She’s great because she did have that thing that Teresa has, which is they don’t strike you instantly as brave — it’s not something that you would say as the first thing when you meet them. But after a while, [you realize] they’re brave in a very subtle [way]. They’re not fazed. Teresa is a lot like that — she carries on with her thing and she does it — and Mónica is like that as well. 

That jump that she does at the end [of A Cop Movie into the academy training pool], that’s her — that’s Mónica. We had a stunt double on the day because [Mónica] didn’t even know how to swim. So when I hired her, I said, “Well, you’re going to have to do this [10-meter] jump at the end of the movie.” And she was like, “Oh my god, okay, I’ll try, but I’m really scared.” And so she started doing training and diving from three meters, then from the five-meter platform. And then, she went, “Okay, this is as far as I’ll go. I’ll do a five-meter jump, not a 10-meter.” And then on the day, she was like, “Okay, I’m ready. I’ll do the 10-meter, but only once.” And she did it. I love that shot because I think that’s kind of the perfect embodiment of actor and character merging in one body. She’s Teresa, but she’s also Mónica doing it, taking that leap.

It almost seems like Mónica got hooked on the adrenaline rush of being a cop. 

They both did. At one point Raúl — and this was quite early on in his training — said to me, “This is crazy, man, but I think I wouldn’t mind being a cop. I think I might want to carry on with this.” The day that they went to the shooting [range], he’d never shot a real gun before. I remember him calling me, and he was like, “Man, that was so exciting — I felt so fucking powerful, just holding a real loaded gun and firing.” 

He was really turned on, but he’s smart enough to be able to realize all of that and to question it and to make it part of the process of the movie. But I think that’s interesting and that might relate to what you’re saying goes on with American cops — how a loaded gun, and the permission to carry it, is so empowering that people go bananas. They get lost with that power trip.

Policing seems like such a macho culture. Did Teresa talk about how hard it is for a woman in that world?

Oh yeah, absolutely. And the sexual harassment that goes on in the police world — I mean, I can’t even imagine. That’s just a whole other can of worms that we just slightly peeked into, but she did talk about that — and the crazy thing is how she talks about it in such a natural way. She’s like, “Oh yeah, the high commands always picked which one of the cadets they would take.” She talks about it like it’s just a normal day at the office.  

Almost like they’re beauty-pageant contestants that their male superiors are picking from.

And they harass them — and a lot of them just get them into bed and that’s how they [rise up the ranks]. She talks about that in the movie: “My dad [who’s also a cop] said, ‘Well, if one of the high commands picks you, I’m not going to get into a fight with him over my daughter. So I’d rather you didn’t [join the force].’”

Briones as Montoya

Your film is called A Cop Movie. Are there any cop movies you think are particularly effective that you drew from to make your film?

Obviously, I think Serpico is one of the best all-time cop movies because it’s about corruption, and it’s about a man doing the right thing in the middle of this and fighting. It’s the David-and-Goliath story, which is very attractive, and it’s beautifully played and all that. We started off [making the film] saying, “Okay, let’s find the Mexican Serpico — who’s the guy?” And we couldn’t find him — we couldn’t find a Serpico. 

But at the same time, I have to say, [there are cops] who are actually driven and who have a vocation for it — a calling — and we did encounter those cops, and that was a surprise. Teresa and Montoya themselves are people who had a calling and who started out of love and respect, and there’s a whole mystique about the uniform. Teresa still says, “My blood is blue,” even despite her bitter ending with the police — she’s not in the police force anymore. They’re studying law, and they work now in an Uber Eats kind of delivery service to make ends meet. But despite that, she still has a great love for the cops because her father was a cop. All of her life has been about being a policewoman. 

It’s interesting to find those people who still have that sense of pride about it — and still choose to take bribes. It’s very hard to wrap your head around that. That’s one of the first things one of our key advisors said to me on our very first meeting: “You’re going to have a hard time wrapping your head around how the same cop that takes a bribe, that same cop on the same day can go out and put his life on the line for somebody else that he doesn’t know.” They do the right and the wrong thing in the very same day — we’re not trained to digest those truths so easily. 

Teresa is a perfect embodiment of that. That’s why we chose to start the movie with that scene of her. That’s a true story: She did help a woman deliver her baby when nobody else would help her. And then Teresa goes out and takes bribes. It’s very complex.