Recent developments in Mexico highlight the ongoing security crisis in swaths of the country and suggest a repetition of past strategies that have not been able to effectively reduce crime and violence. These strategies have also led to a dramatic increase in human rights violations while doing little to strengthen the law enforcement and criminal justice institutions necessary to provide long-term solutions to Mexico’s security challenges.
In Michoacán, the Mexican government has begun the process of disarming the self-defence groups formed in the state of Michoacán, requiring all members to turn in and register their weapons and urging them to join the newly created State Rural Force (Fuerza Estatal Rural). Although the legal basis for this force is unclear, the Federal Commissioner for Security and Integral Development for Michoacán Alfredo Castillo announced that the force will be under the direction of the State Public Security Ministry. Castillo also said in a radio interview that the Rural Force will do the work that the municipal police should have done, noting that the majority of the municipal police officers ended up working for organized crime.
Other press coverage on Michoacán has suggested that a Rural Defense Corps (Cuerpos de Defensa Rural) under the direction of the Ministry of Defense (Secretaria de la Defensa Nacional) will also be created. It should be noted that almost a year ago, on 21 May 2013, Mexico’s Minister of the Interior Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong announced a surge in the military and Federal Police presence in Michoacán to respond to the violence and insecurity in the state. At the time, the interim governor had promised to restore the state’s police forces.
In Tamaulipas, the government also launched a new security plan in response to the recent wave of violence in this troubled state, where at least 76 people were killed in organized crime-related violence in just the last month. Tamaulipas currently has the highest reported rates of kidnapping and extortion among Mexican border states and the second highest rate of kidnapping in all of Mexico. Under the plan, Tamaulipas will be divided into four regions, each under the direction of an army or navy officer. The new strategy includes additional checkpoints, 24-hour patrols, and the weeding out of corruption in local police forces. With this new operation, the Mexican military is clearly expanding its presence in Tamaulipas. But it should be noted that for the past few years, the Mexican Army and Navy were already the predominant security forces in the state, with municipal and state police forces all but absent in many areas.
Tamaulipas and Michoacán have in fact both been central points of federal intervention for almost a decade. In June 2005, then-President Vicente Fox launched “Operation Safe Mexico” to combat drug-related violence and corruption in Tamaulipas and two other northern states of Mexico; this program was later expanded to other states, including Michoacán. Nine years later, in spite of federal interventions, crime and violence are widespread, and the states’ police and judicial institutions remain weak.
There is no quick fix to the security crisis in Mexican states like Michoacán and Tamaulipas. However, it is clear that replacing corrupt and poorly trained police with civilians under the direction of state or federal agencies, or deploying military-led operations to parts of the country with high levels of crime and violence, cannot be the long-term solution to Mexico’s security crisis. Yet it is also a policy that has repeated itself over and over again in recent decades.
Every Mexican president since José López Portillo has promised that they would make police reform a priority in their efforts to strengthen the rule of law and combat crime in the country. The same Mexican presidents also significantly expanded the role of the Mexican military in public security. In the absence of successful police reform, they argued that the military’s presence was needed until Mexico’s police forces could fully assume their public security role.
Mexico’s experience has shown that deploying the military cannot be a substitute for building police forces that fight crime with the trust and cooperation of the population. Deploying soldiers for tasks that they have not been trained to handle in an environment permissive of abuse has only resulted in widespread human rights violations. Moreover, this use of the military leads to a vicious circle: as has been the case in Michoacán and Tamaulipas, handing over police functions to the military draws attention away from the need to fundamentally reform the police forces, which in turn all but guarantees the ongoing use of the military in the provision of public security.
In my newly released WOLA report, Mexico’s Police: Many Reforms, Little Progress, I argue that in spite of multiple reforms and some positive developments in the areas of vetting and training, Mexico’s police forces continue to be abusive and corrupt because the government has failed to establish strong internal and external controls over their actions. This means that agents implicated in wrongdoing – from taking bribes on the street, to working with organized criminal groups, to perpetrating grave human rights violations – have little incentive to change their actions, because the odds are slim that they will ever be investigated and sanctioned.
The police have also failed to gain the trust of the population. According to the 2013 National Victimization Survey, conducted by Mexico’s National Institute for Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía), almost 62 percent of victims said they did not report crimes because they did not trust the authorities and/or because they thought it was a waste of time. More than half of those surveyed considered Mexico’s Federal Police to be corrupt; even more said that state and municipal police were corrupt.
During his remaining years in office and in coordination with the state governors, President Peña Nieto has the opportunity to strengthen Mexico’s police forces and reverse the trend to militarize public security in the country. This could include focusing on areas such as the certification of police forces, not just individual police officers; continued reforms to the national vetting system; strengthening Internal Affair Units and other internal controls; creating strong external control mechanisms to complement internal police discipline; strengthening citizen oversight over police forces; and respecting the rights of police officers themselves.
In order to effectively address the security crisis in states like Tamaulipas and Michoacán, the Mexican government must work towards creating strong, rights-respecting police institutions that are able to prevent and combat crime with the trust of the citizenry.
Maureen Meyer is the Senior Associate for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).