Law Enforcement in Mexico: Not Yet Under Control

September 25, 2007

Residents of Mexico City have been suffering from a heightened sense of public insecurity for at least a decade.[1] Robberies and muggings are relatively common occurrences, and many citizens fear the consequences of using automatic teller machines or hailing cabs on public thoroughfares, given the rise of “express kidnappings”—being forced to drive from ATM to ATM, usually at gunpoint, to withdraw cash. But it is not merely an explosion in “ordinary” street crime that sustains the rising violence and public insecurity. Rather, much of the violence, crime and insecurity is the result of the ascendance of relatively well-organized purveyors of armed force: a variety of clandestine “business” groups involved in illegal trade—especially drugs and guns—and institutionally empowered forces in the employ of the state, mainly police but sometimes the military.[2] Many members of the armed forces work hand-in-hand with criminals, either through their participation in petty crime rings or in bigger-bucks operations like drug trafficking and gunrunning, a situation that partly explains so much police unwillingness to guarantee the rule of law. At present, the public trust in the police is so low they are practically the last to be called when a crime is committed, in part because citizens fear further abuses at their hands.

Clearly, some of the problems of police corruption grow out of the history of authoritarianism and one-party rule in Mexico. Since police were complicit in much of the dirty politics and everyday repression that Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) made use of to undermine opposition forces, the institutions of policing in Mexico have long developed a tolerance for impunity. These problems are so deeply ingrained that even the slow but steady democratization of the Mexican political system has done little to alleviate the problem. In fact, rather than bringing an end to this system of corruption, Mexico’s democratic transition may have exacerbated the problem. With the long-ruling PRI out of power on the national level, and struggling to hold on to, or capture localities all over the country, it has lost its institutional and fiscal capacity to reward police for their political “loyalty.” As a result, police themselves have turned to crime and other forms of “rent-seeking” as a means of recovering earlier privileges.

Additionally, with decentralization of the state and the strengthening of municipal institutions—changes generally heralded as accompanying democratization—the hierarchical structure of police control so well honed by the PRI has started to slip. The gaps in authority and power not only create “space” for greater police discretion, but also impede coordination and agreement on which publicly armed forces, if any, should be guaranteeing the public order. In the six years since local democracy came to Mexico City—the city’s residents were granted the right to elect their own mayor in 1997—federal police have frequently locked horns with Mexico City police, and on several occasions the military has been called in to settle matters, generally to the chagrin of both sets of police forces.[3]

And significantly, with different parties coming to power at federal, state and local levels, elected officials and political actors have sought to use their own police forces—e.g. those under their administrative control—to enforce public order so as to be in a political position to claim success in guaranteeing the rule of law.[4] This is especially so in Mexico City, which since democratization has been governed by the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The PRD is struggling to use its foothold in the capital city to gain national power, now in the hands of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). But neither the PAN, which now administers the federal police, nor the PRI, which still enjoys networks of influence within the Mexico City police, are eager to see the PRD make gains.

Complicating this situation is the fact that while the Mayor is able to appoint the chief of the city’s Crime Prevention Police—a version of beat cops—Mexico’s Attorney General, a federal cabinet member, appoints the chief of the city’s Judicial Police, the investigative force granted power to arrest and prosecute criminals. All this means that these different “arms” of the policing apparatus are institutionally divided in ways that cement their loyalty to different political constituencies.[5] One unanticipated consequence of these institutional and political divisions among the police has been more cutthroat competition among the different forces themselves, all of them armed and willing to defend their authority vis-à-vis both the citizenry and other police.

Moreover, some of the conflict, competition and impunity among police owes to the fact that they themselves are frequently unwilling to capitulate to the authority of these newly elected officials. This is in no small part because they see democratically elected authorities as encroaching on their own longstanding patterns of power and influence developed and entrenched through years of authoritarian rule. If anything, the Mexico City police have shown themselves capable of doing almost anything to prevent the introduction of reforms that might reestablish the rule of law and guarantee that democratic practices prevail.

Early in 1997, when the city’s first democratically elected mayor, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, came into office, he sought to “purify” the city’s police forces by imposing lie detector tests and restructuring beats to make police more accountable to communities. He was met with organized opposition by the police rank-and-file, who immediately went on “strike”—i.e. stopped policing—in response. Their actions spurred an exponential growth in crime rates within a matter of weeks—raising the possibility that police themselves were intricately connected to the criminal world—and forced public officials to publicly acknowledge that the city’s “40,000 member [police] force [was] out of control.”[6] Even today, despite concerted efforts to reform the police from within, they have yet to be brought under any sort of institutional or political control.

This is not to say that no progress has been made. One of the most interesting developments in Mexico City in the last year, introduced by PRD Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has been the development of a new type of police, called the Policía Comunitaria (Community Police), who work only on the neighborhood level. One of the first attempts to develop the Community Police has been in the neighborhood of Tepito, an area that has long suffered from serious conflicts between police and local residents [See “Guns, Trade and Control” this issue]. [7] López Obrador, who came to the mayoralty with a serious commitment to strengthen structures of citizen participation in local governance, hopes to use this experiment to involve citizens in establishing the conditions for neighborhood security and also for starting the process of transforming—and hopefully cleansing—the police. The police who are appointed to this special corps have to go through rigorous physical and social training exercises, and they are selected for their skills, bravery and capacity to work together as a solidary group. In addition to being paid better than most police in the city, they have a full-time psychologist on staff and they meet regularly in focus groups separately and together in order to generate a sense of mission and purpose that will strengthen their autonomy from existent structures and networks of city police.[8]

Tepito was one of the first locations for experimentation with community policing for several reasons. First, it is nestled several blocks away from the main downtown plaza—the Zócalo—with its government offices and many key tourist attractions. In the area surrounding the nearby Alameda Park a new Sheraton hotel has been built and a planned renewal project is underway with the personal and financial support of Mexico’s richest executive, Carlos Slim. López Obrador is supporting the so-called “rescue” of downtown Mexico City in order to generate new tourism and foreign investment—hopefully corporate headquarters of global firms—in this part of the city. Downtown crime threatens to stall these plans.

It was in the context of the Mayor’s efforts to eliminate crime and police impunity in downtown areas that Rudolph Giuliani was invited to Mexico City to offer his plans for cleaning up the city. His suggestions, which essentially included a reformulated version of his “zero-tolerance” program and the consolidation of police under a centralized authority, garnered kudos from the city’s Chamber of Commerce and much of the business elite—who picked up the $4.3 million consultancy tab.[9] The liberalization of the Mexican economy, in short, has brought a new-found cognizance of Mexico City’s potential as a global city for finance and tourism, and both the private sector and government officials are considering efforts to transform policing in order to facilitate the achievement of those globalizing and liberalizing goals.

A second and equally important reason that Tepito was selected for community policing owes to the fact that crime and corruption in the neighborhood has gotten worse in recent years, precisely because of liberalization and globalization. Much of this accelerated in 1994, with the passage of NAFTA, as the social and economic conditions of many of the city’s residents began to worsen. Many of the small and medium-sized industrial firms in Mexico City that had flourished under decades of protectionism went bankrupt with the removal of tariff and trade barriers, pushing ever larger numbers of the city’s labor force into the informal sector. Moreover, the character and nature of the informal sector itself began to undergo a major transformation. Without heavy tariffs and other protectionist barriers, many of the goods sold on the streets through the informal sector declined dramatically in cost, even as the supply of vendors accelerated, thereby reducing the income of these informal sector workers.

Nowhere were these changes felt more dramatically than in Tepito. This was not just because Tepito had long been home to a large part of the city’s vibrant informal sector; it was also because many of the goods sold in Tepito were known to be illegal, and street vendors in the area had long developed networks of production and consumption that revolved around the illegal trade of goods. For many decades what comprised “illegal goods” was nothing more harmful than contraband electronics or illegally produced brand name items, but with a series of liberalization measures including the lifting of trade and tariff barriers, goods that used to be illegal were now completely legal and available on open, formal markets. One consequence of this transformation was that after 1994, trading and retail networks in Tepito began to shift towards the importation and sales of new types of illegal commodities, which increasingly meant pirated CDs and DVDs as well as guns and drugs. Sales of these goods not only linked certain Tepito merchants to different commodity chains in the global economy, as was the case with the CDs and DVDs and other contraband goods produced in East Asia, they also brought local residents into ever more dangerous and violent international networks, as with drugs and guns.

Both sets of activities began to change the community from within. As Koreans moved into the neighborhood and created their own organizations, the top-down authority of the community’s leaders was openly challenged. The new source of community disunity threatened to destroy the neighborhood from below. As certain cadres of merchants became involved in increasingly violent and dangerous trade, the community itself became a place of growing public insecurity. With the streets of Tepito becoming ever more insecure, residents whose livelihood was not tied to these dangerous activities began to resent the transformation of their neighborhood. The new dangers not only made them feel insecure but also scared off potential customers for their own retail and commercial activities.

Tensions peaked in 1997 when Mayor Cárdenas sent police directly into the neighborhood to arrest those involved in illegal activities. They were met by gunfire from local merchants, some of whom hired corrupt police officials to protect them against the invading city police force. This led to an escalation of social and political conflicts between Tepito residents and government authorities, with police networked across both groups. These battles have exploded into violence on several occasions, leading one newspaper to label Tepito a “no man’s land.”[10] The development of the new Community Police, then, was López Obrador’s plan for dealing with the internal disarray, violence and disorder in a neighborhood suffering greatly under the combined weight of liberalization and corrupt policing. At a minimum, the hope is that by creating a new police force these old networks of police corruption and illegality will be brought under control.

The expansion of contraband and illegal activities in Tepito, inspired partly by the liberalization of the economy, has brought yet another set of problems to the neighborhood, and to the city as a whole—the rise of private policing. The boom in crime that hit the city in 1994 generated greater demand for private security forces. As crime accelerates, as police themselves continue to display impunity, as liberalization and downsizing of the state limits its capacity to fund adequate security services, citizens and businesses have started to absorb the costs that have long been the legitimate charge of public security forces.

The economic liberalization and commercial opening of the country further contributed to the proliferation of private security forces, not just because it brought more foreign firms into Mexico, many of whom were the targets of executive kidnappings and petty robberies, but also because liberalization made it easier for foreign companies to offer their services. Facing lucrative profits and relatively low investment costs, domestic and foreign security firms materialized practically overnight. In 1994, to monitor the explosion of private security forces, Mexico City’s Ministry of Public Safety created the Private Security Services Registration Department, which in its first year of operation counted a total of 2,122 “registered” private security firms within the city. By 1998, the number had skyrocketed to 17,132, and officials acknowledged that there were many more “pirate” companies that failed to register.[11]

Registration was meant as a first step toward regulating the activities of the private security companies. But formal laws do little to regulate private police in a country where the regulators—i.e. the public police—themselves are corrupt. If the keepers are themselves transgressors, what value is the law, even with a formal democracy on the books? And if the corruption of public police continues to drive the proliferation of private police, who will draw the line on the private security forces’ behavior? Will only those with the money to have their own private policing services be secure? Will the wealthy and well-connected act to further disenfranchise the poor by wielding private violence against those who appear to be criminally threatening? Will those without resources lose even the minimal legal guarantees offered to those apprehended by agents of the state?

The situation deteriorates even further when “public” police begin to compete with “private” police for a monopoly over the means of violence and the legitimacy to use force. Moreover, as ever more individuals start bearing arms as a condition of their employment in private security services, and citizens themselves start to carry guns for self-protection from criminals and police alike, violent “resolutions” to questions of public insecurity become more common, thereby fueling the vicious circle of violence and insecurity. Most citizens who can afford to hire private security guards do so, though not without misgivings and distrust. There have been countless personal and press accounts of citizens extorted or robbed by their own security guards.

One reason the creation of an honest, efficient and civilian-controlled police force in Mexico City remains such a difficult project is that scholars, politicians and laypersons alike have been all too willing to ignore the historical origins of Mexico’s police corruption and impunity. Among these origins is a history of contested state formation built on civil wars, independence wars and revolution. Whether these conflicts had a class, regional or cultural character, or a combination of the three, and whether they were fought (or won) under the banner of authoritarianism or democracy, the fact remains that achieving and consolidating state power has been an ongoing struggle in Mexico up to and into the 20th century. No battle on these fronts could have been won unless one side monopolized the means of violence.

This was usually accomplished by arming forces to guarantee a certain group’s ascent to and hold on state power; and to the extent that the seat of the state was Mexico City, those seeking to attain state power have cultivated support from police located there as often as from the military. Once we recognize how important police forces were to state formation, we have the basis to begin understanding how and why police and police institutions in the nation’s capital became so powerful over the years, and why efforts to “purify,” reform or eliminate them are so difficult.[12]

In addition, the institutional power of the police in Mexico City stems from the history of urbanization and state-led industrialization. Starting in the period between the World Wars, Mexico’s PRI-led state undertook serious efforts to rapidly industrialize, taking advantage of global conditions and sometimes building on earlier traditions of industrialization. These efforts entailed investing in industrial infrastructure in the cities—particularly Mexico City—while neglecting rural areas, thereby initiating pressures for rural-urban migration. One result was the rapid growth of Mexico’s capital, which brought an active and politicized urban working class to prominence within the city. Another was a need to keep the state involved in coordinating the economic and political dynamics of industrialization. Both developments brought Mexico City police directly into the picture, albeit in slightly different ways than had the earlier battles over state formation.[13]

With respect to the working class, urban police were generally called upon to keep activists and strikers in line, so that processes of industrialization could proceed as factory owners desired. When left-leaning labor unions and the nascent party movements that accompanied them gained too much strength, the police were used to bash heads both on and off the shop floor. The growing urban population and the burgeoning service sector brought a new round of social and political regulations which catapulted the capital city police to the forefront of everyday life. Police involved in this wide range of regulatory activities—the permissible use of public spaces, for example—marshaled significant personal and institutional power by virtue of their capacity to make or break the livelihood of street vendors, butchers, taxi drivers, etc. It was through these initial urban regulatory practices that we began to see the systematic development of practices of bribery and police corruption.[14]

The important thing to remember here is that bribery and corruption became a “system” that worked just as well for the state and for many sectors of the urban population as it did for the police themselves. The state was ensured that its own police forces—needed to fight against striking workers and protesting activists—would have a steady supply of income without having to direct money away from the already-stretched public coffers. In addition, many of the poor and illiterate souls who made their livelihood in low-paying service activities were far happier lightly greasing the palms of local police officers than paying state-sanctioned fines or, heaven forbid, appearing in court. This may be just as true today in the neoliberal economic environments of Mexico and other Latin American countries, where the impoverishment of the working class has relegated ever more citizens to informal or illegal activities where police actions can make or break them.

Knowledge of the ways that police impunity connects to patterns of political, economic and urban development can open new windows for policy action on police corruption across the continent. In a newly democratizing Mexico, those interested in alleviating problems of police impunity and public security should be looking at much more than programs of community policing, professionalization of police and the new approaches to training, important as these may be. We must also take seriously the historical record and its institutional legacies.

The end of endemic police corruption will require legislative and policy actions that reform the entire system of policing and the administration of justice—reforms that include the provision of mechanisms for adjudicating citizen claims against police themselves. Training individual police officers to be rule-abiding and to act with justice and on the basis of ethical moral principles may be a good start, but it is nowhere near sufficient to create effective, democratic policing. If the institutions police enter upon leaving the police academy are corrupt, and the organizational dynamics of everyday police practice reinforce corruption and impunity, then a commitment to the rule of law will rest on shaky institutional ground. Real reform must change the structures of police accountability and enforce genuine oversight of policing by democratic institutions.

Further, the realization that there is a demand as well as a supply side to police impunity might push us to consider a plea for fundamental reforms in the regulation, servicing and governance of cities; in the character of the economy and employment; and in social welfare coverage for the citizenry at large. Alongside the focus on the police and even the judiciary, such changes may be absolutely necessary if real police reform is to occur. Linking police corruption to these larger social and economic problems and ills significantly ups the ante in terms of the scope and scale of effort, even as it further complicates the task at hand. But complex and deeply rooted historical problems require complex and deeply rooted solutions. If we are not up to the task, we must be prepared to suffer the consequences.

Diane E. Davis is associate professor of political sociology in the department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is the author of Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century, Temple University Press, 1994.

1. Information on police corruption and its relationship to political and economic liberalization comes from a long-term research project I am conducting with Arturo Alvarado titled “Police Impunity and Deteriorating Rule of Law in Mexico,” originally funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Information on the violence and political challenges posed by the co-existence of public and private police comes from my own two-year project titled “Public versus Private Security Forces and the Rule of Law: The Transformation of Policing in South Africa, Russia, and Mexico,” supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
2. Among others, Sigrid Artz Colunga, Director of Political Analysis for the Fundación Rafael Preciado, a PAN research think tank, explicitly links the problems of police corruption and impunity to the involvement of the military in police affairs.
3. For more on the militarization of the Mexico City police, see Gustavo Lopez Montiel, “Military, Political Power, and Police Relations,” Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 79-94.
4. For further elaboration of this argument, see Diane E. Davis and Arturo Alvarado, “Descent into Chaos: Liberalization, Public Insecurity, and Deteriorating Rule of Law in Mexico City,” Working Papers in Local Governance and Democracy, Vol. 99, No. 1, 1999, pp. 95-197.
5. The historical separation of preventative and judicial police has itself been the source of many problems in the evolution of policing in Mexico, ranging from corruption to out-and-out conflict. For more on this see my “Detective Story: Tracking the Police in Mexico City’s Political Historiography,” in Sergio Tamayo (ed.), One Hundred Years in Mexico City (Mexico City: UAM-Atzcapoztalco, forthcoming).
6. Joseph R. Gregory, “Mexico: A Call to Fight Crime,” New York Times, February 7, 1999, p. A4.
7. Strictly speaking, the police function in the entire Delegación Cuauhtémoc, which is larger than the barrio of Tepito. But Tepito is the main problem location in this delegation.
8. This information was gathered from our own participant observation in several training sessions, meeting with the psychologists, and interviews with the new head of the corps, Bernardo Gómez del Campo, as well as with Adolfo Savin Cravioto, Subdelegado Territorial de Tepito.
9. The money was guaranteed by the private sector as part of a plan (with results only to be visible in four years, according to Giuliani) to fight the underworld. See Susan González and Laura Gómez, “Resultados ‘en cuatro años’ preve Giuliani,” La Jornada, January 15, 2003, p. 1.
10. For more on this conflict, see “Se contradicen autoridades sobre el inicio de los operativos; sorpresa de capitalinos; patrullan mil 500 policías federales calles del DF,” La Jornada, December 4, 2001.
11. Diario de debates de la Asamblea Legislativa del Distrito Federal, December 21, 1998, No. 36, p. 13.
12. See my introduction and the comparative and historical case studies in Diane E. Davis and Anthony Pereira, eds., Irregular Armed Forces and Their Role in Politics and State Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
13. For more on this see my Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).
14. Master chronicler of Mexico City, Salvador Novo, has argued that that the word for bribe in Mexico City, mordida (bite), developed in reference to activities of back-door ticket takers on trolleys in the late nineteenth century.

Tags: Mexico, law enforcement, police, militarization, impunity, politics

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