Politicians and officials in Mexico have promised to reform the police for years, but the force continues to face the same struggles in curtailing the growing threat posed by organized crime groups.
Officers lack adequate training and support, receive dismal salaries, and must work long hours because of understaffing — all of which hampers their ability to fulfill their duties. At worst, these difficulties make officers highly susceptible to corruption and infiltration from organized crime groups.
The public has taken note. Out of all of Mexico’s security forces, citizens have the least confidence in the police. Just 58.2 percent of people approved of the federal police, while only 32.7 percent approved of the municipal police*, according to interviews with 1,200 citizens for an August 2018 survey conducted by the Social Studies and Public Opinion Center (Centro de Estudios Sociales y de Opinión Pública – CESOP) of Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies.
Almost half of respondents said authorities were likely taking part in criminal activities, and over 27 percent felt that authorities were not adequately performing their duties overall.
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The consequences of the ineffectiveness of Mexico’s police force are complex. In part, the country saw more homicides in 2017 than any other year on record, and 2018 is on pace to see violence reach new heights. The country’s criminal landscape has also grown increasingly fragmented — and more violent — due to the government’s controversial “kingpin strategy,” which consists of arresting or killing the leaders of criminal organizations.
Yet these high-profile arrests haven’t made the job any safer for police. One officer has been killed every day in 2018, almost half of which were municipal police, according to a study by the non-governmental organization Causa en Común.
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Police reform in Mexico is a monumental task that requires considerable institutional and political support, but the country’s politicians have shown little will to take action as they benefit most from the status quo.
“The police have often been and in some cases continue to be an arm of the ruling elite,” Eric Olson, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, told InSight Crime. “This is particularly true at the state and municipal levels where the police are often still directed primarily by politicians and governors.”
Politicians, and in particular state governors, in Mexico have a long history of corruption and having links to organized crime groups in some of the country’s most embattled states, such as Veracruz along the Gulf coast and Tamaulipas along the US-Mexico border. These are also the places where police reform is needed most.
These links can “[in part] militate against any kind of police reform,” said Yanilda González, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago who has conducted research on policing across the United States and Latin America.
“Police reform in some ways makes politicians lose their ability to direct the police and police resources in a way that serves their own interests,” González said. “Politicians are unlikely to disturb this relationship by enacting reforms that would alienate the police.”
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Olson agreed, saying that “politicians and policymakers often don’t want to reform or professionalize the police force, and therefore weaken it and keep it under their control.”
As a result, Mexico’s police officers have lost much of their legitimacy, especially in municipalities hit hard by the presence and activities of organized crime groups. Citizens often view their safety and destiny as being in the hands of violent criminals or well-armed self-defense groups that have formed to defend their communities, such as in the state of Michoacán. These self-defense groups, however, come with their own problems.
“When the state is absent or fails to exercise its legitimate authority, secondary impacts occur, such as criminal organizations replacing or substituting the state,” Olson said. “In these cases, it’s extraordinarily difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.”
From what we’ve seen so far from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his administration’s security policy, police reform in Mexico will have to wait.
López Obrador has, among other things, pledged to create a “new” national guard under military control and allocate more resources to the army and less to other security services. This will likely put off the reforms that Mexico’s police so desperately need while potentially preventing authorities from achieving any long-term reductions to crime and violence.
*This article was updated to better reflect the survey data.
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