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Five Security Priorities for Mexico

Viridiana Rios

There is a clear consensus among security experts and academics that Mexico's violence issues are reviving. To improve security and reduce crime, Mexico must focus its policy efforts in five priority areas.

Five Security Priorities for Mexico

The Mexico Institute of The Wilson Center gathered a group of academics and experts on security issues, to discuss how Mexico’s security panorama has changed over the last year. The consensus is clear: Mexico’s violence issues are reviving. 

Homicides in Mexico increased by 11% during the last year, reversing the decline in violent crime that had started in 2012 (SNSP 2016). Mexico finished 2015 having about 46 homicides per day, 4 more than the 42 homicides per day that the country had in 2014. To put this number in perspective, from 2012 to 2014, on average, the total number of homicides has declined by about 2,400 every year, but in 2015 it increased by 1,360.

It is time for Mexico to take action. The last time that Mexico saw its homicide rate begin to tick up, rising from a low point in 2007, it took just three years for homicides to double (SNSP 2016). From 2007 to 2010, homicides increased from 10,253 to 20,680 in Mexico as a result of the fracture of large drug trafficking organizations into smaller rival ones. Mexico has still not fully recovered from such a spike in violence. The country is still 66% more violent than it was in 2007.

Source: SNSP 2016.

To improve security and reduce crime, Mexico must focus its policy efforts on five priority areas.

First, build citizen trust in law enforcement institutions. As of now, only half of the Mexicans that are victims of a crime feel that they were treated well when reporting it to the authorities. As a result, it is not surprising that, according to official surveys, only 19.1% of all the crimes committed in the country are ever reported (Negrete 2016). In other words, any Mexican criminal has about 80% probability of never facing justice, simply because citizens do not report criminal actions to the authorities. In some Mexican states like Guerrero, the numbers are even lower, with only 1 out 10 crimes being reported (Negrete 2018). It is clear. Building trust in the criminal justice system must be the first and most important priority for Mexico if its government is serious about reducing impunity.

Second, fully implement a police reform. Mexico is currently discussing a historical police reform that would centralize local police departments at the state level. If approved, this reform could reduce the number of police corporations from approximately 1,800 to 32. The reform has much potential to create a more homogeneous and professionalized police, yet three important things will need to be considered. First, a correct implementation will require a careful case-by-case analysis of every police department. Some local police departments are more professionalized than state police forces. It would be erroneous to eliminate successful police departments only to create a single corporation of lesser quality. Second, we must be prepared for large political controversy. In places where the state has tried to implement police centralization, rejection from local authorities has been deep. The mayor of Tlaltenango, for example, a municipality located just 2.5 hours away from downtown Mexico City, unilaterally expelled the state police from its territory, and has lodged an appeal to Mexico’s Supreme Court to impede the deployment of state police in his municipality. Mexico’s Supreme Court’s response to this appeal will be critical for the viability of this reform and the future quality of Mexico’s police forces. Finally, the reform must not only be a centralization of police forces but an effort to improve the professionalization, training and overall quality of police forces. Centralization alone will not work.

Third, bring the judicial reform to life. It is not enough to just “implement” it on paper. In 2008, Mexico approved a reform to transform its judicial system from inquisitorial to adversarial, proposing, among other innovations, the use of oral trials, mediation and alternative justice. The deadline to fully implement this reform in all 32 states is June of 2016. Many resources have been put into providing training to lawyers, constructing facilities to conduct oral trials, and creating a new national code of judicial procedures. Yet, advances in implementation are very heterogeneous among the states. While some states, like Chihuahua, started implementing the reform in 2007, states like D.F. (Mexico City), Michoacán, Baja California Sur and Sonora started less than a year ago.  Others have implemented it partially, only in a selected group of its municipalities (Moreno-Manjarrez 2016). Much concern exists about whether late and partial adopters will manage to finish the implementation on time. Mexico must secure a real and honest implementation of the reform, not just a partial, superficial, or paper-based implementation to satisfy deadlines.

Fourth, implement non-politicized crime prevention policies and test their impacts. The main federal crime prevention program in Mexico, the National Program for the Social Prevention of Violence and Crime, has been extensively criticized for a discretionary selection of its areas of implementation, and for lacking a big-picture strategy. The program seems to be throwing money into hundreds of different activities that range from after-school workshops to the transformation of public spaces and the creation of communitarian farms (Chapa-Koloffon and Ley, 2015). Very little is known about the impact of these activities to prevent crimes as there have been few impact evaluations. It is fundamental that Mexico focus its efforts on exploring which, out of all the activities implemented to prevent crime, have been the most effective, and find a way to replicate such impact, if possible, in other localities.

Fifth, further develop security coordination with the United States. Most experts agree that the Mexico-U.S. security relationship cooled right after the arrival of the administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in December of 2012. Yet, the recent capture and possible extradition of El Chapo Guzmán, one of the most important drug traffickers of Mexico, proves that cooperation between Mexico and the United States may well be warming up again. As of now, security coordination between the two countries has been the most successful when used to hunt for high-value targets, or to provide U.S. equipment and training to law enforcement officers in Mexico. Nonetheless, much is yet to be done. Mexico and the United States should have more joint operations, simultaneously targeting criminal networks on both sides of the border. Currently, most enforcement operations between the two countries are conducted independently, mostly because of distrust between corporations in the two countries. Enhancing coordination between elite Mexico police corporations, and the United States would allow both countries to increase their rates of captures. Furthermore, Mexico could greatly benefit from, for example, coordinating efforts with the United States to impede the disordered deportation of criminals into Mexico, and by making it more difficult for Mexican criminals to buy weapons from the United States.

It is time for Mexico to take action. The country cannot afford to lose the gains that it has made since 2011 in homicide reductions. The tendency towards violence in 2015 must stop in 2016. The negative consequences of not implementing adequate policies to address the five security priorities outlined above will go beyond citizen security issues, and may also affect Mexico’s economy. Academics have shown the negative effect that criminal violence has on growth, labor participation and investment. Enamorado et al (2014), for example, proved that significant increases in the number of drug-related homicides decrease income growth by 0.2 percentage points. Rios (2015) has also shown that for every 22.5% increase in homicide rates, one full economic sector cuts operations to zero.

**Viridiana Rios holds a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University, and is a Global Fellow at The Wilson Center. She is an expert in Mexico’s subnational economy, citizen security and rule of law. Before joining the Wilson Center, Viridiana was CEO of México ¿Cómo Vamos?, a Mexican think tank, senior adviser to Mexico’s Minister of Finance, and to Mexican President’s Spokesman. She has a weekly column in Excelsior, and regularly publishes her academic research at peer-reviewed journals.

Chapa-Koloffon, L. and Ley S. (2015) ¿Cuáles son las prioridades? Prevención del delito en México. México Evalúa: 2015.
Enamorado, T., Lopez-Calva, L. F., and Rodrıguez-Castelan, C. (2014). Crime and growth convergence: Evidence from mexico. Economics Letters, 125(1):9–13.
Ingram, M.C. (2016) “U.S. Support for Judicial Reform in Mexico: What is being done and is it enough?” Document presented at The Wilson Center, January 21st, 2016.
Moreno-Manjarrez, R. (2016) “La Reforma al Sistema de Justicia Criminal” Document presented at The Wilson Center, January 21st, 2016.
Negrete, L. (2016) “Work in Progress: Quality of Justice Indicators” Document presented at The Wilson Center, January 21st, 2016.
Ríos V. (2015) The impact of crime and violence on economic sector diversity. Working Paper presented at The Wilson Center, November 27th, 2015.
SNSP (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública) (2016). Incidencia Delictiva del Fuero Común, Tasas de homicidio por cada 100 mil habitantes de acuerdo a denuncias ante Procuradurías/Fiscalías de las 32 entidades federativas. Consulted on January 24th, 2016.

About the Author

Viridiana Rios

Viridiana Rios

Former Global Fellow;
Columnist, El Pais; Instructor of US-Mexico politics at Harvard Summer School
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more