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Book Launch: Police and Public Security in Mexico

David Shirk, Professor, University of San Diego and Director, Trans-Border Institute: Robert Donnelly, Program Associate, Mexico Institute

Date & Time

Feb. 23, 2010
3:00pm – 4:30pm ET


Image removed.Mexico suffers an intense public security crisis, aggravated by cartel violence that has killed many thousands this decade, spurred heightened anxiety on common crime, and exposed the perennial failures of the civilian police. In recent administrations, this crisis has led Mexican leaders to rely ever more on the military for domestic policing duties. Yet while the "militarization" of public security has arguably led to decreases in cartel violence in parts of the country and has been welcome by many Mexicans, it has also exposed the corps to higher levels of organized crime corruption and courted the risk of an increase in human rights abuses. While the use of the military to combat cartels will likely continue in the short term, its deployment in an open-ended war against organized crime is untenable in the long run, and will delay the much-needed professionalization of the country's civilian police, argue the authors of the monograph, Police and Public Security in Mexico.

Co-edited by David A. Shirk and Robert Donnelly, the monograph examines Mexico's police in an era shaped by increasing political decentralization, the presence of powerful and corrosive drug trafficking organizations, and a shift toward accusatorial-style judicial reform at both the federal and state levels. The book includes chapters on: 1) crime trends in Mexico, 2) the historical relationship between state actors and organized crime, 3) police structures and cultures, 4) the evolving role of the military, 5) human rights and the social construction of crime, and 6) local-level police reform efforts.
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Eric Olson, Senior Adviser, Security Initiative, Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute, explained the relevance of the monograph, released at a time when Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, TX, is considered to have one of the world's highest murder rates—191 per 100,000, according to a recent estimate. The monograph, he said, provides an opportunity for a U.S. policymaking audience to gain state-of-the-art knowledge of Mexico's public security situation and the challenges faced by the country's law enforcement corps.

Robert Donnelly, Program Associate, Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute, said the book was inspired by the meeting, "Public Security and Criminal Justice Reform," held at the University of Guadalajara in July 2007 and sponsored by the Justice in Mexico Project of the University of San Diego. That meeting brought together two dozen experts from Mexico and the United States to discuss the militarization of public security at a time of intense nationwide debate on the legality and effectiveness of what was then a cornerstone of the government counternarcotics strategy: troop deployments to drug-trafficking regions. The meeting also led to a broader diagnosis of the public security challenges facing the country and put forward related policy options. The following are summaries of the monograph chapters:

Mexican Police and the Criminal Justice System
Guillermo Zepeda Lecuona of the Jesuit University of Guadalajara (ITESO) discusses why police reform is essential to improving public perceptions of democratic governance. After all, the police officer is arguably the most visible representative of the state, and his interaction with the public redounds negatively or positively on the competence and judgment of elected officials. Zepeda stresses the need for better measures to evaluate the results of public security policy and not just tally the inputs.

The Militarization of Public Security and the Role of the Military in Mexico
University of Guadalajara political scientist Marcos Pablo Moloeznik's chapter discusses the military's evolving mission, as it shifts focus from defending national sovereignty from foreign invaders to protecting the homeland from organized crime. He traces the "militarization of public security" over the past three presidential administrations, emphasizing the institutionalization of the military's role in national security policymaking since the mid-1990s. He explains that a principal cause of militarization lies outside of the military and is due to the incompetence of the civilian police, signaling that police reform is necessary for militarization to ease.

Organized Crime and Official Corruption in Mexico
Carlos Flores, of the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (CIESAS-UNAM), traces the history of organized crime-and-state relations from the 1960s to the present. He divides this history into two eras. The first era is characterized by a powerful central state from 1960 to 1994, capable of exerting deep control over organized crime. A successive era, from 1994 to the present, however, was characterized by a weaker central state, greater political plurality, and decentralization. Flores draws the conclusion that a shift has taken place in relations between state actors and organized crime, going from a centralized and hierarchical relationship to a more diffuse, multifaceted, and unpredictable one.

The Weakness of Public Security Forces in Mexico City
Anthropologist Elena Azaola of CIESAS-UNAM describes the deplorable conditions under which many Mexican civilian police officers work. She describes officers working 24-hour shifts, earning abysmal pay, and suffering constant ridicule and abuse from fellow citizens. Beat cops even are forced to buy their own provisions: bulletproof jackets, ammunition, and, in some cases, even vehicles. These conditions discourage morale and contribute to susceptibility to corrupt practices.

Mexican Law Enforcement Culture: Testimonies from Police Behind Bars
Marú Suárez of the University of Guadalajara conducted ethnographic research of municipal police officers, observing the structural factors that shape their behavior. She describes their exposure to corruption from above, their stigmatization by fellow citizens, and the hostility of the stationhouse. These conditions contribute to police brutality, she says. Additionally, the state's failure to ensure public security has led to the individualization, as opposed to the collectivization, of such responsibilities.

Public Security and Human Rights: Reflections on the Experience of Jalisco
ITESO's Jorge Rocha Quintero says that enforcement-heavy public security policy can be a blunt and counterproductive instrument, leading to human rights abuses and violations of civil liberties, criminalizing social protest and marginalizing defenseless groups, while also exposing the state's weakness and lack of effective non-coercive conflict-resolution capabilities.

Author Daniel Sabet discussed municipal-level police reform efforts in Chihuahua City—one of the few "success stories" of Mexican policing, he said. Sabet's presentation showed how sustained policy continuity across mayoral administrations and compliance with international best-practices accreditation programs have led to improved public perceptions of the Chihuahua City police force.

Sabet identified policy continuity as an essential ingredient for sustained police professionalization efforts at the municipal level. However he acknowledged that high barriers exist for such continuity given inflexible term limits on mayors in Mexico and the partisanship that defines Mexican politics. (Mexican mayors are limited to serving non-consecutive three-year terms). Chihuahua City represents a successful professionalization model because of the commitment of mayors and police chiefs of different stripes to pursuing the rigorous certification of the Commission on Law Enforcement Accreditation, Inc. (CALEA). Though the city's police force earned CALEA accreditation only in 2007, obtaining the credential involved a 15-year process of reform and improvements, stretching over half a dozen mayors of two different parties.

David Shirk made the following conclusions and policy recommendations regarding police reform in Mexico:


Mexico's public security problem is twofold: common crime and organized crime

Police are neither the cause nor the solution to the problem

Nonetheless, police can play a pivotal role, in either a positive or a negative sense...

Better law enforcement requires more professional, "democratic," and community-oriented policing

The military gambit has been both dangerous and ineffective in reducing organized crime


Provide more professional working conditions and civil service protections

Promote judicial reforms and due process for the accused to raise the bar for police and prosecutors

Strengthen and institutionalize internal and external control mechanisms

Promote continuous career development and greater continuity across administrations

In his presentation, Shirk also offered his outlook on public security trends in the near term. He said that the idea is taking wider root in Mexican society that the military does not represent a long-term solution to the public security crisis, and that subsequent policy will be informed by this. Additionally, there will continue to be in the short term debate on the viability and net worth of municipal-level police forces, which are typically much more under-resourced and operationally ineffective than their state and federal counterparts. Shirk closed by speculating that the current government's proactive and forward-leaning strategy against drug trafficking organizations is "not inevitable after 2012," the next presidential election year.

Discussant Marcelo Bergman congratulated the authors and remarked on the relevance of the book. He added that while the editors were optimistic, he was more pessimistic regarding the outcome of reform efforts. Reform does not necessarily spell progress and does not necessarily imply a reversal of past shortcomings, he said. Improving public security in Mexico involves making improvements broadly, not just in the security sector but also in social and economic policy.
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Discussant Michael McCullough provided an international comparative perspective. He discussed Mexican police reform in the context of similar efforts regionally in Colombia and Ecuador, and noted the interaction between judicial reform and police reform. He described a major challenge facing the Mexican police is the adoption of a new institutional culture, one that transitions its mission from that of a bodyguard of state interests to a guardian of public security. He emphasized the need for "smarter policing, not tougher policing" and agreed with Zepeda's statement that the police officer is the most visible representative of the state. And that therefore, the interaction between police officers and the public represents a critical juncture for state-civil relations.

By Robert Donnelly
Edited by Andrew Selee


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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

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