International Le 5 novembre 2015

Students in gunsight: The failure of Mexican law enforcement

Students in gunsight: The failure of Mexican law enforcement

43 students are missing. Photo taken by the author


A year ago I lived in Mexico City studying at El Colegio de Mexico and interning at the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. During my stay there, I witnessed a nation awaken and respond to the tyranny of their government. I can tell you the exact day that this realization began. On September 26, 2014, a group of 43 male students traveled to the city of Iguala, a small historic town in Southwestern Mexico intent on protesting unfair funding and hiring practices. Police arrested the students. Initially jailed, the young men were later transported to another location by the municipal authorities and handed over to the Guerreros Unidos, a local cartel. The Mexican government maintains that this fateful transaction resulted in the students’ gruesome execution – their corpses set on fire, and their ashes disposed of in a river. Never to be seen again1. The official explanation about the incident stresses that the massacre was a local tragedy instigated by the mayor Jose Luis Abarca and his wife allegedly to avoid any disruption of a speech she was to give that day. End of story. If you choose to read on, you will learn that the Iguala Massacre was no isolated incident. Instead, it serves as an example (only one of too many) of the perilous corruption and enmeshment that exists among organized crime, law enforcement and governments in Mexico. Above all, the present article honors the students of the Iguala Massacre along with the twenty-six thousand other vanished souls who know that police are the experts at disappearing people in Mexico – ¡A la chingada todos! Los narcos, la policía y también el pinche estado #yamecanse2.



The families of the missing students do not believe the story emphasized by the Mexican government, and they have good reasons. A recent report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) finds it scientifically impossible that the students were incinerated by al Rio San Juan near the city of Cocula Guerrero (as the official narrative asserts). Cremating forty-three human remains in the open-air manner confessed by alleged perpetrators is neither easy nor secretive – a fire would need to burn for sixty hours, requiring thirty million kilotons of wood, and fifteen million kilotons of tires3. Maintaining such a billowing yet unnoticed fire is unfathomable in the aftermath of the Iguala massacre where thousands of volunteers, local authorities, federal agents, and helicopters scoured across the state of Guerrero. Burning tires and flaming bodies would have been seen by these search parties since they unearthed hundreds of human remains in six hidden mass-graves while searching (unsuccessfully) for the missing students.

Despite facts suggesting that the students were not burned, their ashes in the official narrative symbolizes the hypocrisy of a system made broken. By maintaining that the culprits behind the atrocity were a local mayor and his criminally connected wife, the trial balloon description floated by Mexican statesmen cunningly casts the real issue into the shadows. The reality is that this tragedy is but an infamous instance of a more commonplace phenomenon – police working for Mexican organized crime. Anecdotally, the Mexican people have more evidence than any investigators ever will4, and a significant body of research corroborates the details and presence of cartel related corruption5. Between 2008 and 2009 alone, eight high ranking police officials were arrested for ties with organized crime6. These examples of VIP level law enforcement corruption generate concern in their own right. What they point to however, is an even more alarming truth. Mexican political corruption, petty, grand and systemic, forms the social fabric of organized crime – and municipalities like Iguala are the base7.



The known and presumed ties between Mexican cartels and police raise a critical question – why have Mexican policing reforms systemically failed to curtail criminal related corruption in police agencies? Two primary reasons explain why policing reforms have not reduced criminal influences throughout policing institutions: the socio-political backdrop behind policing reforms, and the socio-Economic foundations of Narco-dollar investments. In short, the structure and reform process of policing institutions is part-and-parcel to the problem.

The Illusory Glare of Mexican Policing Reforms

© media.cagle.comcontent/uploads/2015/10/51

© media.cagle.comcontent/uploads/2015/10/51

Before addressing the two underlying causes of criminally related corruption, it is necessary to outline the current structure of Mexican police forces and recent reforms by presidential administrations. At a glance, Mexican policing institutions appear efficient. In 2007, estimates suggested there were 454,574 Mexican public security personnel or approximately 351 police officers per 100,000 Mexican citizens8. This number is sixty-five percent greater than the UN average of 2259. These Mexican police officers operate across three jurisdictions (federal, state, and municipal levels) with each dominion performing different responsibilities. For example, organized crime and drug trafficking fall under federal police jurisdiction while homicides are categorized as state crimes10. Presently, there are two federal police agencies (the Federal Police, and Federal Ministerial Police), thirty-one state police departments (plus two for the Federal District of Mexico), and 2,022 municipal departments11. This current structure of law enforcement emerged from massive reform projects by the past two presidential administrations.



Overall, the policing reforms by Vincent Fox (2000-2006) and Felipe Calderon (2006-2012) focused on modernizing and professionalizing Mexican police forces through organizational restructuring, raising personnel and managerial vetting standards, and innovating technical and equipment infrastructure across police agencies. On the surface, these police restructuring reforms created impressive results. For example, at the national level the number of Federal officers tripled from 11,000 in 2000 to 37,000 in 200912, and the effectiveness of Federal forces appeared to increase13. Funding across police agencies also raised twenty percent between 2007 and 2008, and twenty-one percent between 2008 and 200914. These investments in public security budgets fostered improvements in police technology and equipment. In particular, Calderon’s government heavily invested in the Municipal Public Security Subsidy funding budget to Mexican municipalities increasing funds from $211,362,970 USD in 2008 to $247,583,051 USD in 200915. The professionalization of Mexican police forces is also seen in the enhanced hiring standards and vetting procedures for police officers16. These achievements suggest Mexico audaciously renovated its police departments by simultaneously increasing the size of police forces while improving quality standards, hiring criteria, technology and equipment.

Beneath the Spectacle



While these police reforms seem good and well on paper, students’ “burned” and prolific drug lords escaped prisons in cinematic ways. Two reasons explain why beneath the façade, Mexican security institutions remain wedded to criminals. First, law enforcement institutions operate in broader societal processes. Politically, police leadership is appointed and accountable to political officials such as the “elected president, governor, or mayor”17. Theoretically, accountability should increase when democratically elected officials delegate law enforcement leadership. In reality, political collusion and tolerance with organized crime effectively undermines the substance of police appointments18.

Whereas leadership appointments are undercut by collusion with organized crime in the short-term, over the long-term the general process of police reformation is undercut by the considerably shorter time-horizons of policy reformers. On the one hand, the New York City police department’s hundred-year struggle with anticorruption initiatives demonstrates that immediate results from police reforms are unrealistic19. On the other hand, policy reformers interpret the lack of immediate results as evidence of failure. Upon entering office there is a tendency among Mexican political leadership to denounce the previous administrations police reforms, “restructure the police, and introduce new programs”20. Rather than tackling the foundations of corruption such as creating robust accountability mechanisms, these police restructuring initiatives are resource intensive, and (perhaps ironically) counter-productive. By reversing and changing policing policies and structures, police departments begin implementing strengthened vetting and training criteria, while the next administration prioritizes increasing the size of police forces, which in turn undermines the initial efforts aimed at improving quality standards21. In effect, policing reforms across presidential administrations are instituted in counter-productive manners, focusing on superficial restructuring and quality standards at the expense of addressing the bedrock causes of corruption with organized crime.



Consequently, the organizational structure and culture of policing institutions (particularly at state and municipal levels) remain systematically predisposed towards infiltration by Mexican organized crime. Rank and file police officers receive impoverishing wages and poor benefits. A 2011 report published by the Secretariat of the Interior (SEGOB) identified that state level officers (who earn more than municipal police) averaged just $632 USD per month22. The incomes for higher-level police officers such as directors, commanders, inspectors and police chiefs are nearly double the monthly salaries of ground level forces, and average $1,240 USD per-month23. The problem is that there are few actual opportunities for career advancement. Police forces are economically stratified due to the contrast between entrance level education criteria and higher level position requirements. As of 2010, the majority of municipal and state level forces required a high school education, however, higher paying positions require “administrative and management proficiency and analytical skills” meaning that the majority of hired police officers have no hope of advancing in police departments24. This stratification of career prospects fosters complacent workplace corruption and the structural remittance of bribery across Mexican police forces25. With few prospects for career advancement, rank and file police officers go on the take, and this “relieves law enforcement agencies of … paying higher salaries as police officers progress in seniority26. In this way, police organizations provide low wages to officers; a glass ceiling largely prohibits career advancement; a culture of corruption emerges; and the highest levels of police agencies remain corruptible to organized crime while the lowest ranking officers remain vulnerable.

© Darío/

© Darío/

Second, and following from the organizational culture of police departments, narco-dollar investments are particularly suited for the socio-economic environments of law enforcement institutions. Specifically, the socio-economic basis of policing institutions (vis-à-vis payment transfer schemes from the Mexican government) favors “micro” level narco-dollar investments. Formal government contracts for law enforcement salaries are top down processes. Debates on contracts and prices occur in fixed boardroom negotiations, where presidential administrations debate with congress for the eventual purpose of disseminating an agreed amount money across regional police agencies who then pay their employees. This was the organizational setting of Fox’s administration that created the public Security Support Fund transfers to states and Calderon’s administration who continued the payment transfers27.

In contrast, narco-dollars provide “immediate cash aid” from the bottom-up where illicit contracts are underpinned by money transfers sent directly to governing personnel28. Not only are narco-dollar investments compatible with policing institutions, but also (and more importantly) criminal organizations can invest enormous sums of their profits into bottom-level cash transfers to corrupt authorities. Throughout the 1990’s criminal groups were collectively spending more than double the annual budget of the Attorney General’s Office on bribes and corruption payments29. The financial corrupting abilities of Mexican organized crime did not decline or reduce in recent times. In 2009, for example, the then Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna estimated that organized crime groups were paying over a hundred million dollars a month to municipal police (Latin America Herald Tribune, 2009). Appreciating Garcia Luna’s estimation on a per annum basis, this means Cartels were spending three and a half times more money bribing municipal level police than Calderon’s administration’s Subsemun funding budget ($249,516,201)30. Even Garcia Luna himself may be on the take as numerous convicted drug traffickers, Mexican newspapers, and Forbes magazine have alleged.

May Burning Students Forever Shine



The above analysis paints a clear and somber picture: the official narrative about the Iguala massacre is bunk. Policemen routinely cooperate with organized criminals to arrest, murder, and disappear people. Despite anti-corruption reforms (and somewhat because of them), Mexican policing agencies remain predisposed towards cooperation with criminal groups. Simultaneously, narco-dollar investments are perfectly engineered for law enforcement institutions. In short, the general collusion between criminals and authorities exists because Mexican policing institutions are the problem they were designed to solve.

Many believe that the only way to fix such a ruined system is to destroy it. This seemed to be the message of those citizens who in response to the forced disappearance of forty-three young-men scorched government offices in Chilpancingo, the capital city of Guerreo. By setting state institutions ablaze, we are reminded that fire ignites everything but not everything should burn. The real problem is that any innovative public policy idea implemented today will be launched in the backdrop of thirty-years of politically misguided and counter-productive reforms. As well, criminal groups are not going anywhere anytime soon. Instituting mass sackings of police forces (a knee-jerk reaction often favored by Mexican policy makers) only produces skilled workers for organized crime. Hiring more police requires the reduction of quality standards, thereby lowering police capabilities and increasing the systemic influence of organized crime throughout police bureaucracies. Lowering the number of police by raising vetting standards is intuitive, but both high school dropouts and university graduates have families, and Mexican cartels know no morals. Threat trumps policy reform. As neither corruption nor criminal groups will dissipate in the coming future what is to be done?



First we must realize that organized criminal impunity cannot be attributed exclusively to corruption. Institutional weakness, inefficiencies, and poor state abilities to enforce the rule of law are other cogent factors that facilitate Mexican organized crime. For example, in 2007 only 1.71 percent of crimes resulted in detention and only 1.24 percent received a sentence31. The inefficiencies of Mexican police forces becomes amplified by negative public perceptions of police forces, which creates a self-realizing prophecy. Mexican citizens commonly rest little faith in security forces, and by extension, they hardly report crimes to relevant authorities. As the Freedom House report of 2013 identifies, in 2012 ninety-two percent of crimes went unreported by Mexican citizens because of perceptions that law enforcement officials were either “inefficient or in cooperation with criminals”32. While corruption is important to Mexican criminal affairs, broader inefficiencies and institutional weaknesses also contribute to the climate of impunity. Addressing these deeper structural flaws is no easy task, but there is an answer: diplomacy.



A diplomatic solution occurs when no-one is happy with an outcome, and Mexico needs diplomacy now more than ever. While organized crime cannot be annihilated (nor their ties with police), their substance, form and every-day money making activities can be cultivated, modified, and pressured to conform with certain behavioral standards. Drug-trafficking (deep breath) is not a problem.

The real problem is that Mexican Cartels are no longer simply drug-traffickers. The Los Zeta’s, for example, derive less than half of their income from narcotics – this organization also profits from home invasion robberies, extortions, kidnappings, executions for hire, gun, human and sex trafficking, forced labor camps, gambling, illicit organ harvesting, oil theft, illegal movie and music sales, and armed robberies. Hence the unsavory challenge.

Rather than interdicting drug-traffickers (an often disadvantageous but always Sisyphean policy approach) Mexican law enforcement should focus on arresting and eliminating those sections of organized crime who: rape, extort, kidnap, murder and engage in human, organ and sex related trafficking. The idea here is that some crimes are simply worse than others – championing the seizures of thousands of kilos of cocaine means coveting a droplet of water from an ocean, but saving thousands of women from the horrors of sex slavery is certainly something.  By culling the scope of organized crime while simultaneously providing an illicit avenue of wealth, the Mexican government can hope to reduce aggregate violence, harm, and trauma for society. Although radical, it shifts the focus away from pompous spectacles and towards human atrocities and costs. Bitter medicine, good health.

[1] As of October 24 2015 only two of the forty -three victims have been identified, the rest are still missing.

[2]  The #yamecanse hashtag originated from a conference on November 7th 2014 when Mexico’s Attorney General, Jesus Murrillo Karam, attempted to evade questions by journalists about the Iguala tragedy and infamously said “Ya Me Canse” (I’ve had enough). These three words epitomize the sentiment of a nation.

[3] Animal Politico, September 7 2015

[4] Mexican citizenry responses in Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2013 identified that ninety percent of citizens viewed the police as corrupt, and forty-three percent viewed the military as corrupt (Transparency International, 2013). Similarly, the Latinobarometer’s Annual Report in 2011 identified that eighty-five percent of surveyed households reported “little or no confidence” in the Mexican Police Force (Business Anti-Corruption Portal, 2014).

[5] Lupsha, 1995; Snyder and Duran Martinez, 2009; Trejoy and Ley, 2013;Rios, 2012b; Campbell, 2014; Asch et all, 2011; Rios and Shirk, 2011; Sabet, 2010a; baiely & Taylor, 2009; Sabet 2010b

[6] The eight officials include: Saulo Reyes Gamboa, the former director of municipal police in Ciudad Juárez, Hugo Armando Reséndiz Martínez, the former assistant attorney general in Durango, Carlos Guzmán Correa, the former head of public security in Cárdenas, Sinaloa, Gerardo Garay Cadena, the former head of the Federal Preventive Police, Noé Ramírez Mandujano, former acting director of the country’s anti-drug agency (SIEDO), Francisco Velasco Delgado, former head of the municipal police in Cancún, Juan José Muñiz Salinas, former head of the municipal police in Reynosa, and Roberto Terán the former head of the municipal police in Pachuca, Hidalgo (Sabet, 2010, p.264).

[7] The number of Mexican drug lords who began their careers as policemen exposes the embedded interchanges between organized criminals and local authorities. For example, the former Guadalajara cartel kingpin, Miguel Felix Gallardo was a judicial state police officer; Rafael Aguilar Guajardo, founder of the Juarez cartel, was a former federal police commander; Amado Carrillo Fuentes, another former Juarez cartel boss, was also a former policeman; the current leader of the Jalisco Cartel, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, was a former municipal police officer in the state of Jalisco; and the former leader of the Gulf Cartel Osiel Cardenas Guillen was a federal police officer.

[8] Sabet, 2010a, p.248

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Asch et all, 2011, p.23

[12] Sabet, 2010a, p.264

[13] The average time to complete Federal police investigations, fell from 270 days in 2006 to 157 days in 2009 (Op.cit., p.258)

[14] For more details, see Sabet 2010a

[15] Asch et all, 2011, p.24

[16] For example, in 2008 the Secretariat of Public Security performed “54,536 trust evaluations … including 24,971 applicants, 3,878 federal personnel, and 25,687 state and municipal police” (Sabet, 2010a, p.264)

[17] Op.cit., p.266

[18] Ibid.

[19] Inquiries and mobilizations against police corruption in New York City began in the late 1800’s, however, it was not until the “1990’s that the New York City police department became a model agency” (Sabet, 2010a, p.266). Even still between 1992 and 2014 there were eighteen single victim misconduct incidents by New York City police officers ranging from murder, shootings, sodomy, and rape cover-ups.

[20] Sabet, 2010a, p.266

[21] Ibid.

[22] According to information provided by the SEGOB, the 2010 monthly salaries for municipal police ranged between $348 USD (Tapachula, Chiapas) and $892 USD (Nuevo Loredo, Tamaulipas). The salaries were slightly higher for state police averaging $632 USD, with monthly incomes ranging from $240 USD (Tamaulipas State Police) to $1,240 USD (Aguascalientes State Police).

[23] SEGOB, 2011

[24] Nagel, 2010, p.104

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] While this initiative was designed to “trickle down to the municipalities”, instead of sharing the funds across municipalities, states “tended to use the FASP funds to build up their own capacities… leaving little left over for the municipalities” (Sabet, 2010a, p.256).

[28] Lupsha, 1995, p.84

[29] Nagle, 2010, p.101

[30] Asch et all, 2011, p.24

[31] Sabet, 2010a, p.259

[32] Freedom House, 2013

To go farther:

Animal Politico. (September 7 2015). “Este es el informe completo del Grupo de Expertos de la CIDH sobre el caso Ayotzinapa (Video)”. Retrieved from:

Asch, B., Burger, N., and Manqing Fu, M. (2011). “Mitigating Corruption in Government Security Forces The Role of Institutions, Incentives, and Personnel Management in Mexico”. RAND.

Bailey, J and Taylor, M. (2009). “Evade, Corrupt, or Confront? Organized Crime and the State in Mexico and Brazil.” Journal of Politics in Latin America. Vol. 2: 3–29

Business Anti-Corruption Portal. (2014). “Mexico Country Profile” Retrieved from:

Campbell, L. (2010). “Los Zetas: Operational Assessment”. Small Wars $ Insurgencies, Vol 21, Issue 1, pp. 55-80. Retrieved from:

Freedom House. (2013). “Freedom in the World: Mexico”. Retrieved from

Lupsha, P. (1991). “Transnational Narco-Corruption and Narco Investment: A Focus on Mexico”. Transnational Organized Crime. Vol. 1, No. 1, pp.84-101.

Lusha, P. (1995). “Drug Lords and Narco-Corruption: The Players Change but the Game Continues”. Crime, Law, and Social Change 16: pp.41-58.

Rios, V. (2012). “How Government Structure Encourages Criminal Violence: The Causes of Mexico’s Drug War”. PHD Dissertation. Retrieved from:

Rios, V., and Shirk, D., (2011). “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis through 2010”. Transborder Institute.

Sabet, D (2010a). “Police Reform in Mexico: Advances and Persistent Obstacles”. Retrieved from:,%20Advances%20and%20PErsistent%20Obstacles.pdf

Sabet, D. (2010b). “Confrontation, Collusion, and Tolerance: The Relationship between Law Enforcement and Organized Crime in Tijuana”. Forthcoming in the Mexican Law Review: Vol. 3(1); Luis Astorga.

SEGOB. (2015). Retrieved from:

Snyder, R. and Duran-Martinez, A. (2009). “Does Illegality Breed Violence? Drug Trafficking and State-Sponsored Protection Rackets.” Crime Law and Social Change. Vol. 52, No. 3, pp. 253-273.

Transparency International. (2013) “Global Corruption Barometer: Mexico”. Retrieved from

Trejo, G., and Ley, S., (2013). “Votes, Drugs, and Violence: Subnational Democratization and the Onset of Inter-Cartel Wars in Mexico, 1995-2006.” Working Paper.


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