Democratization and the Dark Side of Police Reform in Mexico

Undermining the Rule of Law: Democratization and the Dark Side of Police Reform in Mexico

Davis, Diane E


This article asks whether democratization, under certain historical conditions, may relate to the deteriorating rule of law. Focusing on Mexico City, where police corruption is significant, this study argues that the institutionalized legacies of police power inherited from Mexico’s one-party system have severely constrained its newly democratic state’s efforts to reform the police. Mexico’s democratic transition has created an environment of partisan competition that, combined with decentralization of the state and fragmentation of its coercive and administrative apparatus, exacerbates intrastate and bureaucratic conflicts. These factors prevent the government from reforming the police sufficiently to guarantee public security and earn citizen trust, even as the same factors reduce capacity, legitimacy, and citizen confidence in both the police and the democratically elected state. This article suggests that when democracy serves to undermine rather than strengthen the rule of law, more democracy can actually diminish democracy and its quality.

In recent years, Latin American countries have made progress on the democratic front by ushering in more competitive political party systems and ousting longstanding authoritarian rulers. Yet a good number also have suffered through explosions of violence, rising public insecurity, and deteriorating rule of law, much of it fueled by police corruption and impunity. In response, democratically elected leaders have struggled to enact police or judicial reforms aimed at strengthening the rule of law and eliminating corruption among officers in the administration of justice system. The intensity and range of these efforts have been especially noteworthy in Mexico, where an unprecedented number of reforms, many of them directed toward the police, have been introduced in the several years since the Institutional Revolutionary Party lost its grip on national power.

Despite the clear resolve by Mexico’s leaders to undertake police and judicial reform, the pattern of success has been mixed, especially when measured by degrees of public confidence in the police and the latter’s capacities to reduce crime and guarantee public security (Alvarado Mendoza and Arzt 2001). Part of the problem is that a corrupt police force and a weak judicial system exist as two interrelated entities that together undermine the rule of law. This creates an environment in which criminality flourishes, even among the police themselves; citizens have little confidence in the rule of law or the officials entrusted with guaranteeing order; and public insecurity seems to be worsening day by day (Inzunza 2003; CNI en Linea 2005c).

At no time was this more evident than in late November 2004, when an angry mob of residents in a neighborhood of Mexico City called San Juan Ixtayopan (in Tlahuac) lynched two police officers, beating and burning them alive while hundreds of other officers surrounded the area, unable to quell the revolt (El Universal 2004; New York Times 2004a). Residents in this neighborhood on the southern outskirts of the capital claimed that the murdered victims were responsible for kidnapping two children leaving a local school. The officers, in plain clothes and sitting in an unmarked car outside the school at the moment of the attack, were members of the Coordinación General de Inteligencia para la Prevención del Delito, a special intelligence-gathering unit of the Federal Preventive Police (PFP).

Neither riot police nor a local elected official intervening on the officers’ behalf succeeded in dispersing the mob or calming citizens, who, armed with sticks and knives, dragged the officers from their car and pummeled them lifeless (New York Times 2004a). Reporters, however, were able to get close enough to the scene to capture the killings on camera, and leaders of the angry mob allowed them to interview the two police officers. As the officers tried to identify themselves as undercover agents investigating drug dealing in the area, not as kidnappers, the mob remained irate and filming continued. Few in the crowd were convinced of their innocence because most saw only a fine line separating the police from criminals. These attitudes had been cemented by recurrent stories in the press exposing high levels of drug corruption and impunity in the Mexican police and military.

The lynching was neither the first nor the last in the Mexico City metropolitan area reported by the press in the six months surrounding the event (CNI en Linea 2005a). In the days and weeks that followed, citizens and the government reacted strongly to the deteriorating security situation. Those who sought a larger meaning felt a great temptation to highlight the “postmodernity” of the events, in that news outlets were able to record and shape an event that neither the state’s elected officials nor its coercive forces were able to control and in which the lines between participant and observer were blurred. For most Mexicans, however, it was the “premodern” character of the violence that was most significant and troubling. Many saw the uncivilized mob character of the lynchings as a throwback to premodern times; a form of behavior assumed to be more common before the rise of the modern state, with its capacity to monopolize the rule of force, and before the rule of law, a legitimate and functioning judicial system, and democratic or consensual forms of governance. This view was reflected in the daily news media, in which citizens, politicians, and leading public intellectuals lamented that the longstanding problems of criminality and corruption in the justice system would generate such a “barbaric” response.

To be sure, observers did not always agree on the fundamental roots of the problem. Yacobo Zabludovsky, a popular and high-profile broadcast journalist, publicly traced the response to police corruption and a bureaucratic estrangement between officials and citizens, suggesting that “police commanders ‘have not realized what most citizens already know, that we are afraid to approach the police'” (New York Times 2004a). Carlos Monsivais, one of Mexico’s leading public intellectuals, looked more to culture and the transformation of community in a city wracked by violence and fear, a condition that has become endemic in many of the large cities of Latin America (Rotker 2002). For Monsivais, the events showed that “it has become possible [for some citizens] to justify lynching in the name of the disappearance of justice,” a turn of events that shocked him into adding, “one cannot believe that a community, at this late date-that a mob, a lynch mob, of so many people-would love a moment like this as if it were a carnival” (New York Times 2004a).

Although they represented two very different ideological tendencies in Mexican politics (the conservative and tradition-bound versus the progressive and oppositional, respectively), both observers concurred that the system of justice-and the state’s capacity to mount a legitimate and effective police force that was also trusted by the people-was fundamentally flawed. This unusual consensus among those of opposite political leanings may explain why, as a result of the San Juan Ixtayopan incident, Mexican police officials and politicians were forced to acknowledge publicly “that anarchy exists in parts of Mexico,” a view closely matched by citizens who lamented that “there is no security here [in Mexico City]; there is no control” (New York Times 2004a).


Can the disturbing security conditions brought into relief by the lynchings be traced to Mexico’s fragile new democratic regime or the country’s failure sufficiently to deepen and strengthen the quality of its democracy? Or are other factors responsible for the violence and the deteriorating rule of law? Scholars such as Charles Call have suggested that there is a relationship between public insecurity and democracy, or at least challenges to it. Using the case of El Salvador, Call shows that a majority of citizens (55 percent) cited crime and public insecurity “as a justification for the toppling of democracy, double the number who cited any other reason” (2003, 828).

Further clues as to whether there might be a correlation between democracy and unrule of law can be also found in recent writings on the “quality” of democracy (O’Donnell et al. 2004) and the attendant focus on civil rights (Conaghan 2004) and human rights (Whitehead 2004) as much as citizenship and political rights (O’Donnell 2004; Lechner 2004). On the basis of standards and criteria used in this literature, one would rate the quality of Mexico’s democracy as relatively low, or mixed at best, precisely because of the human and civil rights abuses associated with state and citizen violence as well as unrule of law. But the question still remains as to whether there is any causal relationship between democracy or democratic quality-whether high or low-and the type of violence and disorder seen in Mexico.

The answer is not inherently obvious, because positing such relationships has not been the aim of most recent scholarship on democratic quality or democratic deepening. Instead of examining the impact of democratization on rule of law, whether positive or negative, for example, many scholars have preferred to examine the deepening and the quality of democracy in postauthoritarian regimes in the context of a larger theory of democratic transition in Latin America (Hite and Cesarini 2004). Others have been more concerned with establishing the appropriate measurement dimensions for identifying high- or low-quality democracies (such as O’Donnell and his collaborators) than with asking how and whether there is anything intrinsic to a particular democratic regime type or democratic transition that might either produce or reverse conditions of extreme public insecurity or other problems, which place countries like Mexico in the category of low-quality democracy. But there also is a new, albeit small, body of alternative literature suggesting that certain features of a democratic transition, ranging from the breakdown of patronage networks to the unanticipated costs of military demobilization, can contribute to public insecurity. Such arguments have been advanced in recent research on Mexico (Villareal 2002), Brazil (Caldeira and Holston 2002), and El Salvador (Call 2003).1

If one were to look carefully at how Mexico’s democratically elected state officials responded to the San Juan Ixtapoyan affair, such a proposition might be worth exploring further. Preliminary evidence suggests that newly democratic actors, institutions, and practices in Mexico may have been partly responsible for the failure to guarantee a rule of law and the increase in public insecurity. Specifically, democratization of the state through decentralization and power sharing, along with the strengthening of competitive party politics, seems to have contributed to the emergence of new and more vicious intrastate and bureaucratic conflicts. These problems paralyzed government and legislative efforts to enact police reform. The result has been rising criminality, a dissatisfied civil society, and an overall situation of public insecurity in which everyday citizens feel compelled to take the law into their own hands.

Such a dynamic was partly evident within days of the lynching, when it became clear that the local riot police, who answered to Mexico City and not federal authorities, had not intervened to save the attacked officers. Shortly thereafter, different cadres of police started pointing fingers at each other, creating even less public trust in the system of policing while also exposing vertical cracks in the principal coercive organizations of the state. The police also took advantage of their newly acquired civil and political rights to express their dissatisfaction with their superiors’ handling of the situation. Hundreds of federal security police took to the streets to protest against their own commanders as well as those of the Mexico City riot police (New York Times 2004b). These events further reduced public confidence in police institutions and individual officers, both of which were seen as more concerned with enhancing their organizational or personal power than figuring out why the public had lost trust in them.

An overheated electoral climate, fueled by the strengthening of competitive party politics, also contributed to the deteriorating situation. Mexico’s two most important democratically elected politicians, President Vicente Fox and Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, turned the lynching into a prepresidential dogfight. Instead of uniting in the common search for a policy solution to the problems of police conflict and citizen vigilantism, these two bitter rivals-from two competing political parties, controlling the two most significant levels of the state, and struggling to win the support of Mexico City’s residents and the national electorate-sought to use the situation to humiliate each other sufficiently so as to score points at the ballot box, as they had tried with many other high-profile incidents of violence, police corruption, and impunity (CNI en Linea 2004a, b).

For his part, President Fox used the lynching as the pretext for forcing the resignation of Mexico City’s very popular police chief, Marcelo Ebrard, a key ally of Mayor Lopez Obrador. Lopez Obrador retaliated by charging Fox with playing dirty politics, even as he set out on his own independent search for a new round of police reforms and alternative security policies to show that he, as mayor, was better able to gain control of the situation than the president (CM en Linea 2004a). Lopez Obrador, however, had publicly repudiated a two-hundred-thousandstrong citizens’ march for public security barely six months earlier. His stance therefore brought skepticism about how seriously committed he was to police reform and security matters (Reforma 2004) even as it helped fuel partisan backbiting and further squabbling about his party’s commitment to the same goals.

The evidence from this public debate overwhelmingly suggests that no single party or elected official was willing or able to transcend partisan bickering enough to convince Mexico City’s citizens that the problems of fighting police impunity and public insecurity were more important than winning seats in the next round of elections. Such partisan conflict and competition not only motivated some citizens to bypass the state and take matters into their own hands; it also exposed the weaknesses and divisions in the state itself, as the public saw a highly fragmented bureaucracy unable to monopolize the means of coercion, a basic tenet of modern state formation and the foundation for any viable democracy or rule of law.


In exploring the relationship between Mexico’s democratization and its deteriorating rule of law, this article focuses on Mexico City, where the problems of police corruption have been among the most widespread and insidious in the nation. It argues that the institutionalized legacies of police power inherited from a system of one-party rule have placed severe constraints on the newly democratic state’s efforts to reform the police, perverting even positive gains. It further argues that Mexico’s deepening democracy has overly complicated the difficult task of police reform by creating an environment of obsessive partisan competition, which, combined with a democratization-led decentralization of the state and an attendant fragmentation of its coercive and administrative apparatus, exacerbates intrastate and bureaucratic conflicts so as to prevent the government from reforming the police sufficiently to guarantee public security and citizen trust. Together these changes have reduced state capacity, state legitimacy, and citizen confidence in both the police and in the democratically elected state’s management of public security.

Stated in sociological terms, this article argues that strategies of police reform in newly democratizing Mexico, failed and otherwise, have enabled several new and disturbing transformations in the state, society, and their relationship to each other in ways that are starting to undermine the commitment to democratic governance and the rule of law. Stated in terms more consistent with the literature on the deepening or quality of democracy, this article suggests that when democracy serves to undermine rather than strengthen the rule of law, more democracy can actually diminish democracy, if not its quality.

These arguments build on the premise that current problems of insecurity in Mexico owe their existence less to the dearth of police reform efforts, or the inability to bring institutional change through reform, than to the proliferation of interorganizational conflicts and changes these reform policies actually engender. This assertion confirms the findings of other scholars of police reform in Latin America, who have shown that strategies of police reform work only temporarily when they produce bureaucratic infighting leading to paralysis (Call 2003), or that police reform often reinforces more centralized police or military authority, thereby leading to further abuses of power and the return of a nondemocratic ethos (Ungar 2002). In contrast to those studies, however, this analysis is not confined to “top-down,” state- and party-led efforts at police reform and their consequences; it also examines police reform measures coming “from below,” including those generated by social movements, NGOs, and other sectors of civil society, and their impact on the rule of law.


Scholars have described contemporary Mexico as a place where “impunity is the rule and legality is the exception” (Pardinas 2003). One observer has even suggested that if someone actually “tried to plan a lack of control over public security forces, not only in Mexico City but also in a good part of the rest of country, they could not have done it better” (Alcocer 1997, 49). Blame for this situation is routinely assigned to the country’s difficult economic situation and dreary employment conditions, which motivate desperate citizens to pursue a life of crime. Growing income polarization and a failure to recover from more than a decade of recession mean that real wages have remained stagnant and under- and unemployment have been on the rise.

These problems have been particularly severe in Mexico City, a locale hit especially hard by the collapse of the import substitution industrialization model. The city’s industrial sector has been mortally wounded by the opening of the economy and the relocation of Mexico City factories to the border areas, closer to new markets favored by the export-led model that the government prioritizes. As a result, many workers previously employed in the city’s industrial sector have looked elsewhere for income. Youth unemployment has been an especially big concern, given Mexico’s age structure. This demographic problem has fueled the rise of youth gangs.

Still, the problem of public insecurity owes equally as much to how Mexico City police have responded to growing criminality. In an economically squeezed environment in which state downsizing has made it difficult to raise public sector salaries, the police themselves have been tempted to engage in crime. It is not uncommon to find police acting as frontmen for criminal gangs or routinely extorting criminals for kickbacks whether they arrest them or not. One reason police become directly involved in criminal operations, of course, is the remuneration. This helps explain why foreign consultants uniformly suggest that raising police salaries is an essential first step in professionalizing police and gaining control of impunity. But such a policy has not been seriously pursued, partly because macroeconomic policy constraints associated with economic liberalization have limited public sector investment capacity.

The biggest obstacle to eliminating police corruption by raising salaries, however, is the enormity of competing funds available for “buying” police impunity, a situation that stems from the drug trade. Although international drug trafficking and the sale of illegal drugs in Mexico have existed for decades-some say since the 1940s (Sadler 2000)-they remained a relatively low-profile sector of the national economy until recently (Astorga 2000; Benítez 2000). Beginning in the early 1990s, especially when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency managed to cut off direct supplies between Colombia and the United States, much of the drug trade moved its operations to Mexico (Andreas 1998), and drug money began to infiltrate a variety of agencies of the state and society, including the military and police (Piñeyro 2004; Pimentel 2000; González Ruiz et al. 1994; Kaplan 1991). At present, it is widely assumed that practically the entire state apparatus is involved in a vicious struggle against drug trafficking (Zepeda Lecuona 2004; Arzt 2000), so much so that the current government’s struggle against police corruption and impunity is very much linked to the problem of rooting out organized crime and other mafia drug lords, whose tentacles have even reached into the office of the presidency (New York Times 2005).

Even so, a singular focus on economic conditions or drug money can go only so far in accounting for police corruption and public insecurity, primarily because the historical origins and institutional underpinnings of these problems are much deeper. A culture of corruption and impunity among the police has developed over the decades, and it finds its deepest roots and greatest reach in the nation’s capital. In the popular imagination, problems with police impunity trace to the 1970s, a time when a larger “brotherhood” of corrupt police officers linked to Mexico City police chief Arturo Durazo grabbed the public eye (Zepeda 1994) and society experienced the “decomposition of the security organs of the State” (Alcocer V. 1997, 50). But the true roots of police corruption go back to the postrevolutionary period and the tradeoffs made between revolutionary leaders and Mexico City police in their efforts to defeat counterrevolutionary forces associated with Porfirian loyalists (Davis 2001).

In the initial years surrounding the 1910 Revolution, many counterrevolutionaries counted on the military for support. Prorevolutionary forces therefore had to seek other “coercive” allies, among them police and armed peasants and workers. The struggle to consolidate the new revolutionary state revolved pretty much around who could control the means of coercion in the capital city. This meant that support from the Mexico City police was essential to the stability of the new regime. It should be recalled that a large majority of Mexico City residents did not support the Revolution and were hardly excited about the barrage of peasants, workers, and northern provincial elites who comprised the revolutionary coalition in its early years. Revolutionary leaders therefore needed a new police force, loyal to these new prorevolutionary populations and their sentiments and willing to demonstrate their loyalty by arresting or harassing counterrevolutionaries and others the new political leadership considered dangerous. As a result, in the immediate revolutionary aftermath, Mexico City police-individually and as an institution-were given extraordinary leeway and very little discipline.

In theory, once revolutionaries consolidated their hold on the Mexican state, there should have been considerable scope to transform the local police’s task from that of fighting counterrevolutionaries to securing the rule of law. But the contested nature of postrevolutionary state building and the ongoing struggles within the revolutionary leadership over which factions would prevail prevented this transformation for quite a while.

The period 1910-20, for example, saw ongoing conflicts within and between police and the military about who had the authority to secure public order in the capital. These concerns were finally “resolved” by placing military commanders as Mexico City police chiefs, thereby giving the police considerable institutional power and a sense of entitlement, based on the feeling that their function was national security and not merely public service or urban order in the capital. Yet when the Mexico City police had been successfully transformed into an organization of progovernment loyalists allied with the military apparatus, individual police would still run up against political or ideological opponents in other branches of the state and legal system. This frequently resulted in court dismissals of police detainees or repudiation of their grounds for arrest. This response further emboldened the police and their superior officers to disregard the judicial end of the legal system and act on the basis of their own views of what was just or important for the Revolution. As the courts and the legal system became notorious as venues where elites with money or political influence would readily prevail, the police further sought to follow their own sense of justice, legally acknowledged or not.

Actions of the revolutionary state further contributed to problems of police impunity. As early as 1918, President Venustiano Carranza acted on his concern that the courts were still overly controlled by pro-Porfirian elements and introduced changes in the constitution that separated the power to arrest from the power to try or convict suspects. These changes formally separated preventive police (that is, “beat cops,” or those entrusted with guaranteeing social order) from judicial police (those who had the power to arrest and take suspects to court). The legal separation of police powers gave the executive branch more control over who would end up in the hands of the courts, because the judicial police-who alone had the right to arrest-answered to a federal ministry under the supervision of the president’s office. But in addition to empowering certain cadres of police who were most linked to the presidency, this reform also laid the foundations for greater corruption in the entire system of policing, even as it isolated the various steps of the legal process in such a way as to produce overall system dysfunction or fragmentation (Reforma 2003a; Davis 2001).2

Police corruption and citizen distrust intensified throughout the 1930s, a period that proved politically contentious for the government. The entire decade of the 1920s and much of the 1930s were marked by the emergence of labor and other social movements pushing for more democracy. Some of the most active and mobilized opposition groups operated in the city’s municipal politics, with municipal leaders often using their own local police to battle each other in the struggle for political power. The instances of armed conflict among contending political parties and local police not only tarnished the police’s reputation; they also drove the revolutionary leadership to centralize political control of both policing and urban governance. The elimination of democratic political institutions in Mexico City in 1928 and the elected mayor’s replacement by a presidentially appointed regent further enabled the ruling party’s use of police to fight political opponents, whether local or national. These ranged from striking workers, as in the 1940s and 1950s, to protesting students and democracy advocates, as in the 1960s and 1970s.

The police’s own willingness to harass the state’s self-proclaimed political enemies and to operate above the law made citizens ever more distrustful of police motives and legal institutions, giving additional incentive to resolve violations of the law at the “street level” through coercive bribery rather than through juridical procedures guaranteed by the formal system of justice. These informal practices fueled an even more vicious cycle of police corruption and judicial weakness that served to legitimate an alternative or unofficial system of “everyday justice” while also undermining the courts and the rule of law (Picatto 2004).


During the seven decades the PRI remained in power, party and government leaders managed to keep the worst manifestations of police corruption out of the public eye through control of the media and bureaucratic reshuffling of abusive police from one set of forces to another (Martínez de Murguía 1998). Keeping the problem hidden was a high priority because exposing the depths of the corruption would have been disastrous for the party’s overall legitimacy and electability. Mexico’s slow but steady democratic transformation during the 1990s helped to put an end to the cover-up by catapulting problems of impunity and public insecurity into the public limelight and unleashing a floodgate of citizen hopes about reversing the problem.

Citizen perceptions that criminality and violence were on the rise stemmed partly from the more competitive and independent media, which themselves were a product of democratization (Lawson 2002). In addition, expectations for improvement were high because democratization held the promise of offering new channels for expressing concerns and seeking remedies. Still, growing citizen concern about crime also owed to the deteriorating conditions on the ground, not merely the state’s inability to cover it up or increased expectations of accountability. By the mid-to-late 1990s, just around the time Mexico City residents were granted the right to elect a mayor democratically, the city found itself awash in robberies, kidnappings, stolen car rings, extortion, and other forms of violent and nonviolent crime, including rape and homicide (Davis and Alvarado 1999). Between 1995 and 1998 alone, the overall crime rate in the city nearly tripled (Fundacion Mexicana Para Ia Salud 1997, 16).

To be sure, the relationship between violence and democratization is a complicated one. It is difficult not only to distinguish the cause and the effect but also to distinguish the impact of political versus economic liberalization on public insecurity. In Mexico City, most observers cite 1994 as the year criminality and public insecurity burst out of control. This was the year the North American Free Trade Agreement changed several key aspects of the macroeconomy, such as the tariff and trade structure, making border areas more hospitable to domestic and foreign manufacturing firms and directly hurting the more protected industries located in the capital. The 1990s also hosted the democratization of Mexico City governance, with a series of constitutional changes introduced to empower a local consultative body with legislative power (the Asamblea Legislativa del Distrito Federal, or ALDF), followed by a move to allow direct election of the mayor for the first time since 1928. These legislative changes not only brought new anti-PRI political forces into city government; the local defeat of the PRI also destroyed old social networks and institutional practices, some of which contributed to the growing social disorder. Without the PRI at the municipal helm and with the party weakened by electoral defeat, neither police nor citizens counted on the same informal patronage and patron-client relations that in past decades had kept crime out of the public eye and the whole system of social and political order functioning, albeit imperfectly.

The changing political balance of power set into motion by democratization also produced new practices for keeping order, several of which called into question the old authoritarian power structures of the PRI and its relationship to the police. This was first evident in 1995 and 1996 when the last Priista to govern Mexico City, Oscar Espinosa Villareal, called for “militarization” of the city’s police force, using the army to purge the corps of its most corrupt elements (López Montiel 2003). Villareal’s efforts came partly in response to social movements clamoring for the revitalization of democratic structures and practices in the city. It was under Villareal’s mayorship in 1995, indeed, that the National Congress passed legislation fully to democratize Mexico City governance starting in 1997. With crime rates skyrocketing after 1994, and with popular elections for a democratically elected mayor to be held in a scant two years, it seemed evident to Villareal and the PRI leadership that the party that had the most to offer in crime fighting or guaranteeing public security might have the best shot at winning the city once democratic rights were established (Gonzalez Ruiz 1998, 90).

In theory, Villareal’s idea of “militarizing” the Mexico City police may have seemed a good move because the military had long played the role of fighting drug lords and organized crime, and many local police were directly implicated in mafia and drug-running activities. The military also was considered a revered social institution with considerable prestige earned from its role in the Revolution, an image its leadership had parlayed into considerable political power over the years. In contrast, police in Mexico were routinely considered to be the uneducated, undisciplined, and uncivilized dregs of society, and their activities were sharply distinguished, in both law and social consciousness, from those of the military.

In practice, however, the logic underlying the decision to militarize the police was flawed. The military’s longstanding involvement in fighting drug lords meant that many of its personnel were just as corrupt as the police. Indeed, several of the military officers appointed to “cleanse” police forces in Mexico City were subsequently sent to jail for criminal activities (Pineyro 2004). The threat of military intervention in local policing only increased the police’s resolve to maintain monopoly control of the city, partly to protect the same locally based illegal economy and drug-trading networks. In reality, neither the police nor the military wanted to stop the drug-related criminality, but instead wanted to insert themselves into these lucrative networks of illegal activities at the expense of potential competitors. Thus with military-police competition for control over the rights to “police” criminals, violence and conflict accelerated among the police, the military, and the drug-linked mafias, as each of these overlapping forces sought to carve out the greatest possible influence.

The military’s involvement in local policing concentrated the power of law enforcement agents in the higher echelons of the PRI-led state, where elected officials and the military leadership would make decisions independent of local input and out of concerns for national security, sovereignty, and party hegemony as much as for crime fighting. Thus the chain of authority among the party-state and the country’s coercive forces was condensed and concentrated at higher levels. Because major nodes in this chain were already prone to impunity and lacking commitment to the rule of law, and because police and military were already directly involved in illegal activities themselves, the involvement of higher-ranking authorities in crime fighting brought both the police and the military into a direct relationship with criminals, tempting the law enforcers with higher volumes of cash and power and making it harder for them to keep to the straight and narrow path.

In 1997, when Cuhtémoc Cárdenas succeeded Villareal in the mayor’s office, expectations about eliminating corruption rose dramatically. The PRI was now out of power in the city, and Cárdenas claimed that he would establish both democracy and order. That Cárdenas was emboldened by support from social movements and some renegade forces from the PRI, who knew the ruling party’s operations from the inside, further raised citizen expectations that he would put an end to the dirty tricks that had sustained the cycle of police corruption and criminality. One of the great advantages Cárdenas brought with him to the mayor’s office, despite his lack of control over the police, was the democratically elected ALDF, dominated by members of his party. Therefore he was not hamstrung by old Priistas in his efforts to enact a reform. Yet he also faced obstacles.

First, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) was a relatively new party, born out of the struggle for democracy. This meant that Cardenas came to power with a much weaker and less organizationally developed party base. second, Cardenas had left the PRI for the PRD, generating considerable antagonism from many Priistas who saw him as a traitor to the party his father, former president Lázaro Cárdenas, was instrumental in forming. Both factors further estranged him from the police and intensified their unwillingness to help in his crime-fighting project. Indeed, after several high-profile efforts to call attention to police corruption, Cárdenas was met by public intransigence from several leading police officials, one of whom went directly to the press to defend vigorously the “moral quality” of the city’s police. (This despite his acknowledging the “occasional” problem of “judicial police . . . linkages with mafia dedicated to the robbery and reselling of automobiles and autoparts.” Lajornada 1999b).

All this meant that if one of Cárdenas’s first tasks as mayor was to mount a capable and trustworthy police force, purged of old and corrupt elements and refurbished with those loyal to the PRD rather than the PRI, he could not count on individuals or institutions with long-standing political connections to the PRI. Among Cárdenas’s first pronouncements was to insist that he would not bring in the military to reform the police-although his appointment of a retired military officer as the first police chief placed generated considerable skepticism about the veracity of this claim. Still, his subsequent appointments of civilians Alejandro Gertz Manero as Federal District police chief and Samuel del Villar as DF attorney general soon reinforced his commitment to a new strategy of reform. Shortly thereafter, Cárdenas introduced new structures for hiring and formulated alternative mechanisms for police oversight. These changes included the introduction of lie detector tests for new and returning police personnel, forced resignations among the judicial police, and a new system of tracking preventive police by neighborhood.

Unfortunately, even these strategies yielded few positive results, and a few negative ones; the reform’s ineffectiveness was visible almost immediately. Beat cops boldly protested the new government’s anticorruption measures by “withdrawing” their services completely in such a way as to abet crime. Crime rates immediately went through the roof, a product perhaps also of police involvement in criminal acts as a form of retribution. The level of calculated impunity in the first several weeks after the reform was introduced was so extreme that Police Chief Gertz Manero was compelled to acknowledge publicly that Mexico City’s “40,000-member force [was] out of control” (Gregory 1999, 4).

The reform efforts did not touch the real heart of the problem, which was government incapacity legally to indict the criminal elements themselves. Most beat cops refused to cooperate with the state in investigating drug and other gang-related crime, and the strong-armed efforts to purify the judicial police had alienated key elements in that next stage of the administration of justice, the courts. There was therefore even less cooperation between different crime-fighting elements in the justice system than before. Police Chief Gertz Manero publicly acknowledged this problem, lamenting the lack of institutional or legal “coordination which [could ] link [crime] prevention with investigation” or “articulate civil, business, and penal codes” (Lajornada 1999a).


The question emerges, however, why the police were so intransigent their opposition to the reforms of the Cárdenas administration, and why they felt so empowered in openly flaunting their clout, despite the new democratic environment. Police reforms have worked in other situations of pervasive police corruption, as evidenced in the case of El Salvador. Even if these reforms were much less enduring than their advocates hoped, owing to what Charles Call labels the “transaction costs of security reform”-which abetted crime because the “disruption of the internal security system took its toll”-they did bear fruit in that Central American nation for several years (Call 2003, 83).3 So why was it so difficult to make much headway in Mexico, even when a democratic opening appeared in 1997? More to the point, why does it seem that police corruption and resistance to reform even worsened as democracy deepened in the years to follow?

Part of the answer rests in a more nuanced understanding of the nature of the democratic transition and its political effects. While democratization did give the newly elected PRD government in Mexico City a public platform to call for changes in the police, political conditions and institutional goals on the national level did not follow suit. Throughout Cárdenas’s term, the PRI maintained its monopoly on the national executive, and with it a reservoir of institutional capacities that could be used to undermine police reform efforts in the capital. These included a system of federal police forces tied to the national executive with a history of intervening in Mexico City affairs, a military bureaucracy still answering to the PRI and also increasingly worried about exposing its own complicity and impunity, and considerable federal control of local finances in the form of a budgetary veto on Mexico City expenditures. The Mexican Constitution also set clear limits on the mayor’s autonomy to name his own police chief. Any appointee had to be jointly supported by the president and approved by the National Congress. Many local police, moreover, still had strong connections to the PRI, given the history of complicity. Thus the persistence of these structures and practices constituted a nontrivial barrier to reform.

Yet why did the PRD not successfully compensate for Cárdenas’s failures when his successor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, became mayor in 2000? That year also brought the defeat of the PRI at the national level. Why was progress still elusive and conditions seemingly worse? One explanation is that even with the PRI purged from the national executive, the nation’s third major political party, the National Action Party (PAN), had gained control of the presidency. Yet it, too, had very few of its own networks of control over police or military. For precisely this reason, when the newly elected President Fox wanted to deal with the problems of police corruption, he had to do so through the institutions over which he had some authority-national (that is, federal police and the attorney general’s office), not local institutions in Mexico City, where corruption was organized differently. Moreover, many of these were now wracked with their own problems of intensifying corruption, some of which had worsened in the several years before the PAN came to power because of growing military involvement in both drugs and policing. In such an environment, national efforts to join the struggle against corruption and public insecurity entailed a centralization of institutions and efforts close to the president’s office, in individuals and agencies the new president could trust.

Far from solving the problems of corruption and insecurity, however, these actions fueled the cycle of police and military corruption, as drug and crime-fighting agencies were restructured or even eliminated, thereby driving the dismissed personnel straight to their original partners in crime (often bringing with them the weapons and information they had used before their dismissal). Complicating matters, centralization of reform efforts alienated Mexico City officials, who, with democratic rights and responsibilities, now had their own networks, orientations, and partisan goals with respect to public security. The lesson here is that to enact police reform in this highly corrupt system would have required a shared commitment by the competing political parties at multiple local and national government levels and by actors in a variety of institutions or agencies where impunity had once existed. But the historically ingrained and systemic patterns of police corruption, combined with contested partisan character of Mexico’s democratic transition, made such a shared commitment almost impossible.

All this is well revealed by a closer look at the national administration of President Fox, his efforts at police reform, and how they affected his relationship to Mayor López Obrador. Fox and his party, the centerright PAN, came to power in no small part because during the presidential campaign he identified police corruption and public insecurity as key problems to be solved during his administration. Once he assumed the presidency, Fox was rudely confronted by the reality that he lacked the political networks or institutional connections with police and military to be able to introduce a reform “from within.” Several of the high-level military generals, drug czars, and attorneys general he appointed-and in whom he invested great public and private confidence-were found to be directly implicated in criminal or illegal networks, as were a good number of the high-level administrators of the new federal police force that Fox established to replace the old corrupted one (Hernández 2003W.

That newly democratic Mexico was now governed by a national congress divided almost equally between the three major competing parties set further limits on the types of reforms Fox could introduce from the national executive. His newness to politics and the relative institutional weakness of the PAN, as a party and within the state bureaucracy, further prevented Fox from mounting a close team of allies he could trust in this battle. The most direct evidence of this was seen in the exposure of a spy for a drug cartel working directly in the office of the president, using this platform (and Fox’s confidence) to pass clandestine information about drug intervention operations directly to the criminals (New York Times 2005, 4; CNI en Linea 2005d).

The limits to police reform also translated into problems for Mexico City mayor López Obrador. Although Fox may have been genuinely committed to solving the problems of criminality, insecurity, and impunity facing the country, he also knew that federal support for local police reform in Mexico City would directly translate into political benefits for the PRD and López Obrador. He therefore had very little incentive to coordinate reforms on the national level with those being advanced on the local level in Mexico City. Mayor Lopez Obrador, for his part, was just as hamstrung by his electoral concerns and the political bases associated with his own territorial jurisdiction.

On the one hand, López Obrador was very interested in police reform because he saw growing criminality and public insecurity as a major obstacle to his planned “rescue” of downtown Mexico City and its transformation into a mecca for global capital (both businesses and tourists). The revival of the downtown was important for the mayor because he was desperate for financial resources to govern the city, given that there was very little goodwill to initiate federal transfers from either the national congress or the presidency. He also needed funds to bring middle-class and business allies as a coalition of partners into a party that was known as an advocate mainly of workers and the poor. The working class and poor of the city, on the other hand, were the PRD’s “natural” base; and while these constituencies had plenty of citizen and neighborhood organizations committed to police reform and public security, they also brought an additional political base that limited López Obrador’s commitment to police reform: citizens employed in the informal sector.

Among López Obrador’s strongest allies in newly democratic Mexico City politics were lower-income citizens in downtown areas who sold goods, sometimes illegally, on the streets. These activities had developed over the years with full police complicity, and much of the Mexico City police’s involvement in contraband and drugs can be traced to these relationships. Many of the mayor’s efforts to dismiss or reform the police threatened those lower-income communities. So did his support for a physical renovation of the downtown, a plan designed to emulate a similar one in New York that called for a different structure of policing. This was a threat to those low-income residents whose property values and livelihood would be affected by plans to “clean up” downtown (Davis 2005).

With these competing political constituencies-and his own contradictory political objectives-López Obrador had very little maneuvering room for enacting a serious or substantial police reform. His space for action was further limited not just by the democratization of Mexico City governance but also by the steep democratic competition from the PRI and the PAN for political office. As a result, most of the changes introduced by López Obrador and his police chief, Marcelo Ebrard (fired by Fox in the lynching episode), fell into one of three categories of action: renaming old police forces with new, citizen-friendly titles, such as policia comunitaria; appointing new police leadership and recycling corrupt police out of the force but keeping old organizational structures intact (Sarre 2001); or developing more community-run policing programs, built around PRD ideals of citizen participation but with the goal of bringing citizens to the front lines of crime fighting. None of these three approaches touched the source of the problems of criminality or police corruption (Davis 2003).


López Obrador has tried to balance his own political constituencies while struggling to keep the federal government and its police forces from politically monopolizing the terrain of local police reform. As he has muddled through several superficial police reforms, however, President Fox has pursued his own reform agenda. The result might be characterized as “dueling” police reform efforts, paralleled by dueling political parties and dueling presidential candidates controlling dueling police forces, with each set of forces trying to capture large swathes of public loyalty.

Because López Obrador has long been considered the man most likely to defeat the PAN or the PRI in the 2006 presidential election, Fox has .been ever more reluctant to work with him to solve Mexico City’s police corruption problem. If anything, Fox has tried to take the spotlight away from López Obrador on the police front, and he has used a variety of powerful measures and bureaucratic agencies at his service to do so, not to mention his much greater fiscal resources (Morett 2003, 9). Fueled by a desire to reap the political capital from police reform efforts, Fox has instructed the national executive branch and its dependencies to fund new and more narrowly circumscribed institutional domains for policing that effectively redraw the boundaries of authority so as to exclude the old “tainted” elements of the police, in Mexico City and elsewhere, while also creating an alternative agency answering only to him. This is a strategy of centralizing power in order to enable political and institutional-managerial aims.

The move toward police centralization was first seen in Fox’s decision to create an entirely new national police force called the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), built around a new authority and personnel structure, within a year of coming to office. As with most reforms previously tried by his predecessors, the responses of the police themselves soon required a tandem institutional reform a year later, in 2001, that would enable more clandestine investigative activities directed at the police. Given the structure of legal authority in Mexico, this entailed the creation of a yet another new framework for judicial police that would replace the old Federal Judicial Police (PJF). This new, more powerful, and more centralized agency for criminal investigation, called the Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI), operated along the lines of the American FBI. Agents from both of these new security forces, moreover, would be able to enter Mexico City if the nature of the crime under investigation (a federal crime, such as drugs or kidnapping, including police involved) so warranted.

While these reforms greatly increased the president’s control over the police, they still could not reverse the decades of impunity and the breadth of corruption; nor could this institutional reorganization completely stop the police’s own retaliation against the new forces in power, two realizations that further drove Fox to enact more centralizing, quasiauthoritarian state controls. In June 2003, Fox felt compelled to create yet another new federal agency, called the Subattorney General’s Office for Special Investigation of Delinquency (SIEDO), a separate agency to replace the AFI, directly empowered with investigating those crimes in which corrupted military and police were most implicated: narcotrafficking, arms trading, robbery, child prostitution, human slavery, kidnapping, money laundering, and terrorism. Whatever the rationale, the implications have been clear: Fox’ strategy for reforming the police has been greater centralization, which, by giving the federal executive greater power for clandestine investigation, also increases the state’s authority and coercive power in ways that echo the predemocratic era.

The problem is that this strategy has fueled further police corruption even as it backtracks on decentralized democratic ideals. More centralized efforts to shut corrupt police out of the state and punish them for past abuses have driven many police officials directly into the criminal world, especially as the Fox administration’s all-out war on drug cartels has motivated drug lords to marshal greater and greater resources to infiltrate both the police and military. One could conclude, indeed, that it is this dynamic that explains why, soon after SIEDO’s creation, it was found to be infiltrated by corrupt elements (CNI en Linea 2004c), and why a key drug cartel was able to plant a spy in the president’s office. Indeed, almost every new police agency that Fox has established or tried to reform since coming to office has been found to be riddled by corrupt elements, from the PFP (Joyner 2003, 12) to the Fiscalia de Especialización para Ia Atención a Delitos Contra Ia Salud, or FEADS (Hernández and Joyner 2003, 14), to his most recent creation, the AFI (Milenio 2003). The point here is that criminal behavior on the part of the police has not automatically receded in lockstep with the centralization of power; and in some senses it has accelerated, at least at the higher and more important levels of government.

Such developments further push the Fox administration to find greater means of hierarchical control to rein in the problem, including the use of highly specialized military personnel-clandestine and not-against the police and other potential suspects (Hernández 2003a, 14). The use of one coercive arm of the state against the other not only underscores the depth of the problem of corruption; it shows that the Mexican government has found itself forced to rely on authoritarian-era militarized tactics to bring the problem under control, leading many critics to label the Fox administration increasingly authoritarian (CNI en linea 2004c).

The logical progression of this vicious cycle of failed police reform followed by a more centralized, quasi-authoritarian response was seen long before the dismissal of DF police chief Ebrard in December 2004. It appeared as early as April, when President Fox created what Mexico’s papers have called a superfiscalia and a superpolicía, or two new, highly centralized, powerful national offices for a “super” attorney general and “super” police (La Jornada 2004). It is still too early to understand the full political and legal rationale or even the implications of this new reform, which breaks with past efforts by Fox and his predecessors because it mixes and matches both investigative and preventive police in one agency (superpolice, or those answering to the secretary of the Interior) while separating both from the criminal prosecutor’s office.

To a certain extent, such a strategy might allow the Fox government to eliminate some of the interagency rivalries between preventive and investigative police forces that have sustained corruption, prevented the arrest of fellow police, and undermined the rule of law for so many years. But the quixotic and potentially dangerous aspect of the reform is that it creates two competing agencies that overlap in function both internally and externally. One combines investigative and prosecutorial functions in which some but not all investigative police are involved (the attorney general’s office); the other combines preventive and investigative policing functions in which some prosecutorial groundwork is laid (secretary of the Interior/police).

The bureaucratic fragmentation that results owes something not just to the institutional fallout from reorganizing cadres of police who, in practice, are not ready to relinquish their networks of authority and affiliation. It also owes much to how the remixing of these different aspects of the administration of justice system (that is, the constitutional separation of police and judicial power) has created two new federal agencies that overlap and compete with each other in function, even if not in personnel, on both the federal and the local Mexico City level. The overlap leads to continued conflict, competition, and ambiguity about which police forces are supposed to be responsible in a given crime situation. This was one of the issues that emerged from the San Juan Ixtayopan lynchings and has long been the source of tension between Mexico City administrators, those in the surrounding State of Mexico, and the federal authorities (Lajornada 2001a; CNI en Linea 2005b).

Combined with a centralization of power in the national state that limits the power of local authorities in subnational jurisdictions like Mexico City, these organizational changes call into question the coherence and efficacy of many of democratic Mexico’s key governing structures, as well as the longstanding constitutional precedents and the legal code separating these aspects of police powers. In addition, the combined effects of these reforms create problems of transparency-not to mention legitimacy and trust-from the vantage point of civil society. It would not be unreasonable for the average citizen to ask which police are answering to which authority. Nor would it be far-fetched to describe the situation in postmodern terms: no one knows for sure what is a real reform and what is an illusion. Yet this, unfortunately, is the state of affairs that promotes further political disengagement, a key foundational element of a vibrant democracy.


Delegitimation of state structures and the absence of transparency and accountability by no means signal the end of democracy, of course, even if they do diminish its quality. Mexico’s own history is replete with episodes in which citizens have struggled to revitalize, reclaim, or establish the state’s accountability and transparency, thereby making democracy a process as much as an outcome. It takes an engaged and participatory citizenry willing to demand this in order to make it happen. Yet on precisely these counts, the situation in Mexico is not that hopeful, at least in terms of concerted citizen claim making on the state with respect to police; and again, it is the government’s failure to enact a viable police reform that lies at the heart of this problem.

To some extent, this is a vicious circle: without citizens organized and struggling for government accountability and transparency in routing corruption and cleaning up the police, elected officials will not go the extra mile to attack the problem. Yet without concrete gains in rooting out police corruption and strong accountability from the state, either local or national, citizens become further alienated from their democratically elected officials and take up alternative means to address security problems, even as they bypass democratic institutions. In Mexico City, a mobilization of two hundred thousand citizens marching in the name of public security brought almost no response from Mayor Lopez Obrador, mainly because he feared antagonizing his key political bases (Reforma 2004). The mayor’s failure to accommodate this mobilized citizenry further disenfranchised them politically, while also making them even more cynical about the possibilities of clamoring for true reform “from above.”

With Mexico City’s police seemingly out of control and the government unwilling if not unable to turn around the accelerating problem of public insecurity, citizens and businesses have started to absorb the servicing and protection duties that have long been the legitimate charge of state-employed security forces. This was evident long before the recent citizen mobilization, and was reflected in the unprecedented explosion in private policing in Mexico’s capital during the 1990s. The boom in crime starting in 1994 generated considerable demand for private security forces. The economic liberalization and commercial opening of the country further contributed to the proliferation of private security forces in the immediate post-NAFTA period because it allowed foreign companies to offer security services. Highly lucrative profits and a relatively low investment were two of the benefits of this business.

To coordinate the proliferating private security forces in this period, in 1994 Mexico City created the Private security Services Registration Department (.Direction de Registro de Servicios Privados de Seguridad), which, in its first year of operation, counted 2,122 “registered” private security firms in the Federal District.4 By 2002, the number of private security firms operating the capital neared 1,000, and these companies together employed approximately 22,500 private security guards.

To be sure, citizens cannot be faulted for turning to the private sector to solve problems that the government has proved incapable of tackling. By so doing, citizens are effectively introducing their own “bottom-up” police reforms, built on a rejection or repudiation that implies a legitimation of “public” police’s willful disenfranchisement from ascribed duties. Yet bypassing public police in favor of private security forces also has its darker side. Such actions not only let corrupt police off the hook by taking citizen pressure off the state; they also sometimes generate more violence and insecurity, even as they raise troubling questions about democracy, equality, and the rule of law more generally. Whenever more persons start bearing arms as a condition of their employment in private security services, and citizens themselves start to carry guns for self-protection from criminals and police alike, violent “resolutions” to questions of public insecurity become the norm, thereby fueling the vicious circle of violence and insecurity. The recourse to lynchings and the emergence of vigilante mentalities can be seen as the logical extension of this situation.

Protagonists in these events frequently justify their behavior in terms of the total breakdown of policing and the rule of law, a claim that is not that far from the truth. Notably, such responses also seem to emerge most frequenlty among low-income communities where the police have long abused the citizenry and professionalized private policing is unaffordable. When both state and market failures in police services leave citizens vulnerable, they have little recourse but to act on their own. Still, the overall security situation can deteriorate further when communities or “private” police compete with “public” police for a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Indeed, in Mexico City, “public” and “private” police forces, not to mention communities themselves, have in some instances battled with each other, fueling an environment of fear and insecurity. This dynamic may partly explain why, in the last several years, as the number of private police has risen, citizens have started making formal complaints against them.

The magnitude of the problem and the volume of complaints against private security forces still does not match that leveled at the public police, of course. But as a trend, it is noteworthy. In 2002, when statistics were first compiled, Mexico City governing officials saw more than a fourfold rise (from 5 to 22) in monthly complaints against private police between May and November alone. That private police frequently are composed of ex-military or ex-police members may account for some of the “transference” in impunity and frequent human rights abuses to their ranks.5 Whatever the source, accounts of private security forces thwarting public police, and vice versa, are routinely reported by citizens and officials alike. One high-profile example occurred several years ago in an armed shootout in the downtown Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito, a mere couple of hundred yards away from the administrative offices of the newly democratically elected president and mayor (Davis 2003; Lajornada 200Ib).

For many citizens, one seemingly positive sign on the horizon is the rise of new social movements and nongovernmental organizations devoted to questions of public security. Many grassroots groups are taking the problems of police corruption and public insecurity to heart, seeking alternative solutions and community practices at the neighborhood level. In this sense, citizens are both building on and reinforcing the democratic practices and advances that resulted from many years of struggle against authoritarianism. Over the last several years, the Mexico City government has supported citizen security meetings at the level of the delegation, with the goal of bringing residents and police together in democratic dialogue about how best to guarantee public security. The results have been limited, however, for obvious reasons. Citizens do not speak frankly about police corruption and impunity in their neighborhood when those very same police are sitting across the table, armed with their note pads to identify citizens by face, street, and so on. A certain degree of police reform therefore must already be in place before grassroots citizen participation can make a serious difference.

Given the limits to individual and even neighborhood action, among those social organizations making most headway in tackling police corruption are those operating citywide, which guarantees a larger scale and scope for action and organization. Yet this makes smaller, community-based organizations-the bread and butter of much civil society activism and a vibrant democracy-relatively insignificant in tackling the problem. Instead, the high-profile organizations that operate on this scale tend to collaborate with private sector businesses. In Mexico, one such organization funded by the private sector, the Citizens’ Institute for the Study of Insecurity (Institute Ciudadano de Estudios Sobre la Insegurldad, ICESI), has developed a massive public relations campaign about police corruption; its efforts have included the publication of names of police officials known to be involved in illegal activities.

Organizations such as ICESI have considerable clout because of their connections to wealthier elites in society, and a great deal of legitimacy because they are independent from the government institutions that may be linked to police corruption. But these types of organizations also have a narrowly defined view of the problem of public insecurity, and they rarely engage government agencies or key democratic institutions. Organizations linked to business chambers of commerce and other private sector entities, moreover, care about problems like crime and police corruption because they create an environment that puts economic gains in jeopardy, either by creating locational disincentives for private investors or by driving away potential consumers, not because of their concern for civil society. Within this framework, concerns about justice and human rights are not so central, while the techniques these organizations favor are more consistent with an authoritarian, “eliminate the problem no matter what it takes” ethos than a commitment to democracy, due process, and the rule of law.

This is not to say that all civil society organizations appropriate the business agenda of stopping crime at all costs. A number of the civil society organizations in Mexico have taken a human rights approach to the problem. But in the last several years these seem to be declining in number compared to the more anticrime-oriented NGOs and citizen organizations, several of which are now working with some police departments in the Mexico City area to place greater restrictions on individual liberties. Thus the emphasis has shifted from police reform to criminalization, with human rights issues shunted to the sidelines. Notably, newfound citizen activism for hardline measures against crime suspects is encouraged by many police, who have a vested interest in blaming the criminals-and thereby diverting attention from their own corrupt forces-while also avoiding human rights discourses that could be used against them.

The popularity of the anticrime-fighting stance grew after the 2002 visit and the reform plan proposed by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, which was strongly supported by the business community, some police leaders, and local government officials. The Giuliani plan, built around the “broken windows” idea that cleaning up the streets and establishing neighborhood livability is the key to crime reduction, calls for a hike in penalties for criminals and an increase in police powers to arrest those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Civil liberties are often the first casualty of such an approach, even as police increase rather than decrease their discretionary power. Yet as citizen support grows for such hardline measures, the sky seems to be the limit, as evidenced by new efforts in Mexico to install the death penalty. In a move that suggests that authoritarian tendencies are alive and well, support for this position is now advocated by some members of the PRI (Pardinas 2003), who, through their recent victories in the State of Mexico, have found themselves competing with PRD loyalists for the votes of the metropolitan citizenry. Differentiating themselves in terms of who is hardest on crime is perhaps the last salvo to be launched in a tight electoral field in which all parties are desperate to secure their political future.

In a democracy there should be healthy debate about how best to solve key social problems, including crime. Likewise, a split in civil society between those who take a hard, anti-civil liberties line and those who are committed to human rights is not so difficult to understand. What is most troublesome in the new discourses that have emerged in Mexico, then, is the failure to target police corruption as part and parcel of the problem of crime and public insecurity. Citizens cannot fight this battle alone; they surely cannot do so if they ignore police corruption and focus only on crime and insecurity. The localized nature of social movement activism and most community organizations-coupled with the divergent framings of the problem among them, be they anticrime, pro-human rights, or otherwise-continues to isolate individual organizations from each other in ways that prevent them from acting as a united front against the corruption problem. Civil society activism can go only so far if both state and civil society are not united together behind this common goal.

The power to change endemic police corruption-in Mexico and elsewhere-rests on civil society’s institutional capacity to transform the system of policing and the overall administration of justice; and this requires, among other things, legislative and policy actions in which the state and political parties also are key players. But how can this be accomplished in a virulently competitive political context when the parties are unwilling? Or in an environment where a commitment to human rights and the purging of police must be sacrificed in order to get the police to cooperate in the efforts to establish public security? Or in an environment where the Mexican state’s role in crime fighting and police reform has lost so much legitimacy that few NGOs or civil society organizations seek the state or political parties as partners in the struggle for change?

The point here is that even though civil society continues to organize around the problem of public insecurity, the fragmentation among citizen groups and NGO unwillingness to find powerful state and party allies prevents them from making further headway. In the meantime, police remain relatively unaccountable to just about everyone, except perhaps their direct superiors and in many cases not even them. As the problems of public insecurity and police corruption persist in Mexico City, bringing new “practices of insecurity that redefine relationships with power, fellow citizens, and space,” to use Susana Rotker’s formulation (2002, 13, emphasis in original), daily life spirals ever downward into the depths of chaos, unpredictability, and disorder.


Today, as democracy has taken deeper root and started to blossom, the state is still so fragmented and riddled with police corruption, and society perhaps even more alienated and cynical than earlier, that even this long sought-after prize seems strangely irrelevant for many. Does this also mean that democracy, not to mention its quality, is the true victim here? While it is too early to write the obituary for democracy in Mexico or its capital city, the country’s still-fragile political system does seem to have been critically wounded by the paradoxical developments of recent years, including those set in motion by concerted efforts to reform the police “from above” and remedy the security situation “from below.” As democracy has deepened, the security situation has worsened, citizens are more politically disenfranchised than ever, and few are turning to their democratic leaders to solve the problems.

It should be borne in mind that democracy is a social project as much as a set of constitutional guarantees about structures and processes of political representation. It will flower only when there are strong connections between the governors and the governed in a social contract that ties citizens to each other and to the state in a common framework for social order, political representation, and political action. For such a situation to materialize, citizens and the state must accept a single rule of law with predictable results and mechanisms or structures of representation and accountability. But both the law and these mechanisms remain strangely elusive in Mexico today.

One reason the viability of the social contract is now under threat is that those with the power to guarantee the rule of law, the police, are neither trusted nor accountable. But the real obstacle is the inability of state and citizens to join together in the struggle to restore trustworthiness and accountability to the system of policing. And this, paradoxically, is partly because previous efforts at police reform, whether coming from above or below, have driven rather than reversed the cycle of state delegitimation, citizen frustration, police intransigence, and citizen anarchy leading to vigilantism and the irrelevance of the rule of law. Decades of authoritarian governance caused Mexico’s citizens to be prepared to mobilize independently of the state. This is one of the reasons that democratization has been successful in the present period. But citizens’ historical proclivities to mobilize against the PRI furthered the state’s reliance on corrupt police officials to sustain its monopoly on power.

Economic liberalization-and more recently, globalization-also have made their mark by opening borders in ways that allow each of these protagonists to further their own aims without directly engaging the others. Direct foreign investment and foreign aid go to national states; clandestine global networks of illegal trade fuel police impunity; and international advocacy groups support civil society organizations that are financially rewarded for bypassing government programs and mobilizing for police reform. Thus the new world order has made each of these three actors less willing to tie their fate to each other in the same territorial space in the search for a new and democratic politics and society.

This phenomenon parallels the transformational shift from solid to “liquid” modernity, to use the terms of the great postmodern theorist Zygmunt Bauman, in which widespread social disorder results from changing social and political practices. Bauman contends that in the new world of liquid modernity,

all communities are imagined, but the stability of this shared life is more fragile than ever due in fundamental ways to weakening ties between nation and state. The human pursuit of security and dignity is threatened by the deterioration of effective governing structures and boundaries of appropriate scale. . . ; while the very essence of society, a normatively structured way of life for a group of people within recognizable boundaries, is in jeopardy . . . [and] growing numbers of individuals are left to their own resources to resolve increasingly social problems. (Quoted in Brueggeman 2004, 222)

Privatization of police, the desperate search for authoritarian or vigilante actions to maintain social order, and the declining institutional capacity of the Mexican state to fulfill its normative responsibilities can all be identified as signs of this troubling state of affairs.

What Bauman calls liquid modernity might also be understood as the paradox of deepened democracy. As Mexico’s political parties strengthen and power sharing becomes the modus operandi, more insecurity and unrule of law appear, not to mention less transparency and legitimacy, all because of how the key elements of a newly democratic Mexico work or do not work together. In sociological terms, this might mean that Mexico is on the precipice of a period in which regime type may not be as relevant as the extent of social chaos and disorder for characterizing the quality of political life, democratic or not. Given the problems of police corruption and attendant vigilantism, certain locations in Mexico City are now considered “no man’s lands” where terror and brute force, not a social contract, a formal legal system, or democracy, set the rules. In this environment, the value of human life is degraded, as are the enlighted institutions and principles that gave rise to concerns about humanity in the first place. Claudio Lomnitz’s deeply moving and powerful ethnographic foray into what he calls a decaying Mexico City discusses these developments as the “degradation of people and a depreciation of life,” in which “the experience of violence, and the fear, guilt, and impunity that are associated with it” bring human sensibility nearly to an end (Lomnitz 2003, 48).

What we are seeing, in short, is not merely the unfulfilled promise of democratic gains that most observers hoped would accompany Mexico’s transition from authoritarian rule. Nor are we merely seeing a democracy with diminished quality. We are confronting elements of extreme social disorder and a breakdown of political and legal institutions and practices that make questions of representation and democratic participation almost irrelevant. Missing is the shared enlightened commitment to social order and rule of law that served as the midwife to democracy over the last several centuries. In a society marked by unpredictability, violence, state fragmentation, and societal breakdown, the challenge of reform is indeed immense. Forget democratic deepening; forget bettering the quality of democracy; forget the nuts and bolts of police reform. How about reconstructing, reviving, or renewing modern enlightenment ideals and an attendant commitment to the rule of law with the hope that with such social infrastructure a vibrant democracy will once again become something worth struggling for? That particular “transition” may be the hardest of all to achieve, yet it surely will be the most lasting and worthwhile.


1. Villareal (2002) used time series data from a sample of 1,800 Mexican municipalities to demonstrate a direct relationship between democratization (defined in terms of increased electoral competition) and violence, as mediated by the breakdown of patronage relations.

2. The legal separation of functions increased incentives for bribery, especially among beat cops, as citizens learned that the judicial police and a court date could be avoided with a small payoff to the beat cop. These restrictions motivated both sets of police to transcend their legal limits of action, further undermining the rule of law.

3. Transaction costs are defined as liabilities involved in firing corrupt police from their jobs. In the search for newly gainful employment after their dismissal, many ex-police turned directly to the life of crime (Call 2003, 843).

4. Officials acknowledge that many more “pirate” companies failed to register and thus remained beyond government scrutiny. Among those pirate firms that did register, almost half (1,123) were subsequently closed because of irregularities in their functioning: no permits for the use of firearms, lack of registration of firm personnel, and so on. Data on private police drawn from interviews and documentation provided by the secretaria de Seguridad Publica (Office of the Police Chief), Mexico City, summer 2002.

5. Statistics from the Registration Office suggested that one-third of the personnel (30 percent) in private security forces come from the military and the public police ranks. In research team interrogations with several representatives from private security firms, the numbers were closer to 50 percent. see Robles Zapata 2002.


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Diane E. Davis, professor of political sociology in the Department of Urban Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the author of Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century (1994; Spanish translation 1999) and Discipline and Development: Middle Classes and Prosperity in East Asia and Latin America (2004). She studies the history and politics of urbanization and urban social movements in Mexico, as well as local governance, leftist mayors, and democratic transitions in Latin America. Editor of the research annual Political Power and Social Theory, she is currently conducting studies of police impunity and the deteriorating rule of law in Mexico City, Moscow, and Johannesburg.

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