Julio Molto

The former head of Panama's national police force talks to Executive Outlook about leadership, Ferguson and his community-based policing strategy that is sweeping Latin America.

Following lengthy and highly-publicized civil unrest in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri (USA), the ‘militarization’ of the police has been launched to the forefront of debates on law and order around the world. Few are more familiar with such debates than Julio Molto, the head of Panama’s national police force from 2012-2014.

An engineer by training, Molto began his career at the plastic products company Solo Container in Panama City, where he worked in purchasing and technology. Soon, Molto’s appetite for new technology led him into the media industry, where he was placed in charge of new media and the Mi Diaro project at La Prensa, Panama’s leading independent news group. Here, Molto sharpened his new media savvy, developing a state of the art website for the group and reinforcing La Prensa’s information systems. In 2009, Molto’s career took a political turn with his appointment as Executive Secretary to the President of the Republic by then-President Ricardo Martinelli. In 2010, Molto was named Secretary of the Security Council of Panama before being placed in charge of the country’s police force two years later.

Nowhere are debates over the militarization of the police more pertinent than in Latin America. Faced for years with rampant organized crime, drug trafficking and kidnappings, the police forces of many Latin American countries (Mexico being the best-known example) have increasingly been merged with national armies, both in terms of weaponry and philosophy. According to this view, criminals are enemies to be eliminated on a domestic battlefield rather than members of a community that police officers have sworn to serve as well as protect. In his home country of Panama, Julio Molto has become known for a new kind of policing, Unidad Preventiva Communitaria (UPC - ’Community Prevention Unit’ in English), which puts an emphasis on community outreach, especially among society’s youngest members. Today, Molto seeks to transform his novel policing philosophy into an international foundation, showing the way for countries the world over.

We sat down with Julio Molto at his Panama City office for Executive Outlook’s first exclusive interview to get his views on management, policing methods and his future plans.


Executive Outlook: What was your management style at the head of Panama Police?

Julio Molto: I believe in participation and teamwork. When you have the right people to advise you, your work delivers better results. It is important to have people who share your values around you and who are even better than you are because that will always makes the entire team shine. Keeping that in mind, I called the senior executives on my first day at Panama Police and asked for their CV. We formed the top administration with them and based upon each one’s experience and training. They were by my side at the head of Panama Police during all the time I was in charge, helping me in the decision making process. I benefited from their rich, 20 years and more experience.

This approach made it possible to build strategies together in order to achieve the reduction of crime in the country. Experience and knowledge served the institution and, of course, the citizens of Panama.

EO: What qualities are needed to successfully lead this institution?

JM: The very first one is to understand that you do not know everything about anything; that you cannot arrive with a “new book” and pretend that what had been done in the past is useless. You need a team that has a high level of involvement and experience. You need to keep the feet on the ground, and to realize the level of involvement that implies the safeguarding of the country and the watching of citizens’ integrity and lives because this is a great responsibility that is laid upon your shoulders and that does not let you sleep. You have to understand the needs of the citizens, your mission, and you have to realize that you will be oftentimes criticized for the decisions you take to protect peace and order, although they won’t please everybody.


EO: In your opinion, what are the greatest security challenges Panama faces? What are the ones of the other Central America’s countries? Of the continent in general?

JM: Maintaining serious infractions in a continuous decrease, and continuing the conversion process of Panama Police to transform it into a Community Police fully serving the citizens. One major challenge is that not all understand that prevention does deliver good results and that if we handle the problem from its roots, which is preventing children from the wrong way, we will embrace the only means to really eradicate the problem of gangs. Security figures only can get better if police and citizens work together.

In Central America as in the rest of the continent, I feel it is necessary to change the direction of repression and make an incursion into Community programs. If it is for sure that each country has particularities, it is certain as well that prevention methods can apply to these particularities.


EO: What level of cooperation did you reach in the region?

JM: I really feel satisfied by the work we made with respect to international cooperation. I am not only speaking about this continent but also about Europe, Asia and Africa. Our team achieved significant progresses with respect to intelligence sharing. We organized some important congresses in which we welcomed representatives of 40 countries, reaching the cooperation that immediately translated into information exchange. Besides, we adapted the Brazilian model of prevention and Community work in Panama. Their authorities, la “Policía Pacificadora”, helped us to implement the “Unidad Preventiva Comunitaria” in local slums. Results exceeded expectations. Within weeks, we succeeded in reverting the progress of crime. Our units penetrated the communities, doing impressive work. This is a model that works, that delivers good results and that is proven. It is highly satisfactory and can fit the needs of numerous countries.


EO: The World Cup ended. How do you judge the security management of this world-class event? According to you, what are the biggest challenges of these events with respect to security?

JM: I am very respectful of each country’s own security management. On this topic I can only say that we know sport events like this one elevate passions and fans get overexcited. Therefore, it is very important to anticipate all possible scenarios thanks to intelligence gathering and the participation of the organizers, so that all stakeholders involved with the citizens’ security (firemen, 911…) can maintain the relevant security levels and do not hamper the good tenure of the event.


EO: Have you ever lived a similar situation to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri in August this year? What do you think of the debate on “Police militarization” which has been launched after what happened?

JM: Many brother states have opted for this as their principal method to control crime. However, instead of making organized crime diminish, we observe a significant increase. In my opinion, that is not a sustainable measure over time. You cannot maintain the citizens sat and under fear forever. That is the very reason why I always tend toward prevention. At the end of the day we just have to refer to our statistics and we will see the outcomes.


EO: What were the mistakes of Ferguson’s Police? How tensions could lower?

JM: Like I said before, I am respectful for other countries’ security policies. I do not think it is positive for the police to confront communities, especially when tough issues like discrimination are at stake. There is one thing I have very clearly in mind and that I learned at Panama Police: policemen are human beings, not robots. Policemen are people who choose this work because it is their vocation for the majority of them. Sometimes, they chose to become policemen because of family tradition. They are good in essence (I am not saying no exceptions exist) and they do not go everyday to the streets – leaving their own families to watch others – with the will to murder members of their own communities. However, on this specific Ferguson issue, I think that what could reduce tensions is training police units again and let them imagine a plan to interact better with the needs of the community. To do so, it is necessary to change direction radically thanks to an adequate training that would widen the mission of the police and the services it provides. The units must be convinced that their role is preventive. Their role is to live the daily life of the community, interact with the youth and look for allies amongst community leaders. Making police live like the community instead of looking like a spectator waiting for the opportune time to repress. When the police looks like this, serious and, I am sure, undesired mistakes can happen.


 ”The role of the police is to live the daily life of the community”

EO: What were the philosophy and the goals of the concept of community-based police that you implemented?

JM: We based our project on prevention. I believe prevention is the only way to cut the problem of the entry of children into organized crime as it is attacking the roots of the problem. Our children and teenagers team focused on schools, where we delivered pedagogical talks about drug usage and intimidation at school. We wanted to reach the youth in the schools as well as in the slums. And we did it! We positioned the police as one more community member who lived the problems of the community and know about its needs. This life experience gave the capacity to the police to transform into a change agent. Children started to look at the police as an example to follow, as someone to trust. It is a new role model to imitate, instead of behaving like the outlaw gangsters they see in their neighborhoods.


EO: How do you explain the success of the “Unidad Preventiva Comunitaria” program?

JM: Every single human being needs attention and to be heard. Listening was what did the community police we trained. They are at the first representatives of the state before citizens. They approach the human being with humility. They do not come to the people with condescension or intension to terrify. Our community-police fostered human contact, knew about the problems of people, helped them find solutions. Our community-police proved to children that there exists a place to share and make friends beyond the bullets that once used to slap the streets of their neighborhoods. The units of this team broke the borders that gangs had set. They unified children of opposing territories and made them play together, made them form teams. Our community-police taught them that everything is neither black nor white. It taught them the grey color existed.


EO: Do you think the UPC model could be replicated in other countries? Why?

JM: I am convinced of this and I firmly believe it for one simple reason: in all countries live human beings that have their own particularities but similar needs. The UPC model can be applied anywhere in the world. It is only necessary to adjust to culture and habits. I am sure it will be a success.


EO: Some NGOs and foreign governments have already expressed interest to in fostering the implementation of similar prevention policies?

JM: Yes! Argentina, India, Honduras and El Salvador seemed interested in UPC and other prevention-based models that were implemented, all based upon Community Security.


 ”I believe prevention is the only way to cut the problem of the entry of children into organized crime”



EO: Are you going to keep advocating for security policies based on trust and prevention? How?

JM: Once you are involved with these issues and that you know a formula that deliver results, it is very difficult not to share it to benefit other places. Above all, since we are speaking about people, about children, about the future of our countries, it is exciting to know that you can make something that all will enjoy, and that will change and save lives. Sincerely, when I quit the institution [the National Police of Panama], I thought I would never be involved with this again. But it is selfish being aware of a problem, knowing about a formula that exists to solve it and not doing anything. That is why I am eager to bringing the message and contributing. I think there is much to do. Therefore, why not applying UPC as a means to make the need meet the support and do something? I think it is  just cause for those who are growing and who are our future.


EO: Do you have other projects for the future?

JM: I received various invitations from fellow countries to talk about these community security issues. I will focus on sharing this UPC model in all places where it could be useful. It is a highly gratifying work and I think it will consume much of my time. In parallel, and with the help of some people, we are creating a foundation to handle this and help security institutions develop UPC-like programs.


EO: Why are you creating this foundation?

JM: When you have the opportunity to be part of such radical changes in the lives of others, when you listen to children screaming with joy because they can play with their bicycles, or when you listen to that old woman who says she feels free to walk in the streets at 4am looking for a bus, then you realize that UPC should be replicated in Panama and abroad.

The radical drop in crime we reached when I was in charge of the Panama Police leads people to feel more caring, more empathic. Therefore, you think to yourself, “This cannot stop and cannot be a Police or Government work only.”

Thus, we think that this project must cross borders because all children and young people in the world deserve to have the same opportunity. We need to bring hope, based on real stats, and say these children who see the gangs as a safe place and as an example: “Wait! This is not a safe place. Here we are to care about you. We are here to open your eyes so that you can look at a sustainable future that is far from the path of the gangs.”

Some years ago, when bullets dominated the streets of the slums, children feared the Police because it came as a repressive body. Today it is gratifying to listen to the children and hear them say: “I want to be police officer when I’ll be adult.”


Comments are closed.