La Semana: Sunday, Sep 18
The week in debates about law enforcement
Welcome to the Sunday edition of The Mexpatriate.
In tonight’s newsletter:
The military conquest of law enforcement: is this the only option?
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“Everyone has a tail they can trip on…the ‘panistas’ and ‘priistas’ both sought to militarize the federal police in their time…and now, AMLO is doing the exact same thing.”
—Sergio Sarmiento, journalist, on the short memories of politicians
“We are witnessing the death of a star. A star can end in a huge supernova explosion, leaving bits scattered amongst the other political parties, or it can turn into a red dwarf, floating by itself in the deep blackness of the universe of national politics.”
—Mario Arriagada, policy analyst, on the future of the PRI
The military conquest of law enforcement: is this the only option?
“The defining characteristic of all countries where the population enjoys security is that the local authorities are responsible for maintaining order and preserving the peace. It is the policeman on the corner on whom citizen security depends, and on the authorities with local jurisdiction, for the judicial system to function.”
In the Sturm und Drang of this week’s spectacles on the stage of Mexican politics, I have come to the conclusion that if the shouting abated long enough to ask, neither side could remember what they are really fighting about (or for). Pro- or anti-militarization? First, it’s a fait accompli that has been reality on the ground since 2007, long before the legislation passed this week putting the National Guard (GN) under military control; second, it seems politicians are only “anti-militarization” when theirs is not the ruling party. A PAN president declared war on the cartels, a PRI president maintained it, and a Morena president has denied fighting a war, but insists on a greater military presence to “guarantee peace”.
I do not mean to be flippant about the significance of what occurred this week, as López Obrador and PRI-Morena build legislative bulwarks to uphold military intervention in public security for years to come. In fact, AMLO has taken bolder steps than his predecessors by dismantling the federal police force (leaving over 23,000 police in labor limbo), and impoverishing state and local police departments. In this year’s federal budget, funds allotted for state and municipal security were 63% less than in 2016, the year with peak funding in the past decade.
AMLO has a keen ear for the notes in the national chorus; distrust of the police and the judicial system—local and federal—runs deep. After all, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, “el jefe de jefes”, began as a policeman, and he had many cops on the payroll in his drug-trafficking empire. Ex-head of public security Genaro García Luna will be tried in the US in November for allegedly taking bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel while in office.
The refrain that echoes in the plaza of public opinion is “if not the military, then who will protect us?”
In response to public clamoring for better security, politicians and pundits alike get swept up in tired narratives (“only the military can equal the firepower of cartels”) and hurried solutions (“mandatory pre-trial detention keeps criminals off the streets”). Instead, the definition of law enforcement itself should be under discussion, and what is required to implement it across a vast, diverse country. Are there ways to rebuild the broken trust between citizens and the police? How can crimes be investigated and prosecuted so impunity is reduced?
One starting point is a case study in Nezahualcóyotl or “Ciudad Neza”, a municipality of over 1 million on the eastern edge of CDMX, one of 60 municipalities included in “greater Mexico City”. Nezahualcóyotl is known for sprawling shanty towns; it is one of the most densely populated places in the country. It was also known for criminal activity by local gangs, from theft to drug-dealing to homicides—and for corrupt cops. But today, the municipal police department is rated by the Executive Department of the National Public Security System (SESNSP) as one of the ten best in the country. And this achievement cannot be attributed to military tactics, but to “social proximity”, as explained by the chief of police, Jorge Amador: “It is about co-creating security. The community policing has allowed us to work together with citizens, block by block, forming a network.”
Amador, who is a lawyer with a master’s in philosophy and doctorate in sociology, stepped down after fifteen years of running the municipal police departement in January of this year. Part of his strategy included investing in hiring more police officers (1.93 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is close to double the national average), and providing better pay and benefits, in order to “dignify the role of police officer.”
The think tank México Evalúa conducted an in-depth analysis of policework and criminal activity in “Neza”, published in 2020. The researchers mapped crimes to better understand patterns and to make recommendations to law enforcement, emphasizing the importance of police intelligence-gathering, but also of urban planning. By identifying areas of the city where more homicides are committed, the team found “lethal violence is connected to physical factors which tend to be associated with high levels of informal commerce and drug selling, poor street lighting and limited formal surveillance.” Based on their granular analysis, they found that 47.5% of murders were concentrated in ten neighborhoods; 13.5% of homicides occurred in just two colonias, and of these, 12% happened on one street corner. “The most common violence in Mexico arises on an everyday, local level. It is there that security solutions must be built, street by street.”
And has this community policing paid off?
Yes…and no. Some types of crime have dropped significantly (mugging, kidnapping, car theft, intentional injury), and overall criminal activity fell by 70% during Amador’s tenure. But homicides have increased from 2011-19. However, the homicide rate per 100,000 (15.3) in 2019 was well below the national average of 29. Extorsion reports peaked in 2013 and leveled out since, but have consistently stayed above the national average. Citizen confidence in the police has gone up, from 51% in 2016 to 67% in 2019 according to government surveys. Nationally, only 43.8% of respondents said they trust the municipal police in 2018.
It is worth noting that this example, while promising, does have limits in application. In rural, less densely populated areas, it may be harder for the few local cops to stand any chance against intimidation from criminal gangs. In these cases, federal intervention may be necessary—but should it be military?
The language of war has been deployed so frequently in the context of crime-fighting in Mexico for the last fifteen years that it can obfuscate the more complex panorama of violence. In fact, since reporting and investigation of crimes is so negligible, we are often left with the “must have been drug-related” explanation for the tally of missing and dead, rather than concrete cases opened and closed by law enforcement.
In this “war”, the casualties to date have overwhelmingly been civilians—assumed to be criminals or “involved in something”—though on the law enforcement side, police officers have suffered more than the armed forces. According to data collected by Causa en Común from news reports, 1,700 law enforcement officers have been killed during this administration so far, and 95.8% of those murdered this year were municipal or state police. In contrast, the military has officially recorded 610 deaths since Calderón’s administration in 2006 (including some that were accidental). As one municipal officer says in the organization’s report, “at the municipal level, we spend most of our time just trying to survive.”