How Mexico needs to handle its troubling federal security crisis
A recent spate of brutal crimes against women and girls in Mexico has intensified public pressure on President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whose security strategy has failed to check criminality during his first year in office. While his decision to increase the government security budget by nearly 8 percent in 2020 is a welcome gesture after the deadliest year on record in the country, resolving the Mexican security crisis requires not only raising salaries and expanding force sizes, but broadly reforming and centralizing the numerous disparate government security institutions.
The Mexican security forces have been notoriously fragmented, and the police operate at municipal, state, and federal levels. Each jurisdiction enforces its own separate criteria for recruitment, conduct, and wages. These widespread discrepancies have led to debilitating corruption, as underpaid and poorly trained municipal police officers have become the primary points of entry for cartels and drug gangs to suborn the state.
Meanwhile, the last three presidents relied heavily on the military to take on the 400 or so criminal groups across Mexico. Former President Felipe Calderon introduced a new Federal Police, trained and supplied by the United States, to relieve the military in internal security roles, however, his successors sidelined the institution by cutting its budget and curbing its size, relying increasingly on the military for domestic law enforcement.
Obrador, a vociferous opponent of Calderon, assumed the presidency in 2018 with a mandate to demilitarize the Mexican drug war. To reduce use of the army domestically, he unveiled a new security force, the National Guard, just a few months into his term. But his appointment of a retired army general to lead the new civilian institution made clear a continued preference for a militarized approach, and the National Guard remains mostly comprised of recruits from the army, navy, and Federal Police.
To date, the National Guard has failed to meet recruiting goals. Mexico, which has a combined police force of around 330,000 officers, still lags behind the global average for police in relation to population size, all the more problematic for a country with such security challenges. Multiple institutional doctrines inherent within the National Guard system also created confusion about use of force in the country and at its borders.
President Trump has leaned on Obrador to stem immigration at all costs, pushing the nascent force to undertake duties well beyond its remit. This became apparent in a crackdown on a Central American migrant caravan attempting to cross the southern border of Mexico, resulting in eruptions of violence between the National Guard and the migrants. Obrador has a good instinct to centralize security provision, but beyond reorganization, his government must undertake deep reforms in the security sector to address rampant corruption, inefficiency, and lack of professionalism.
First, Mexico should evaluate the mandate of its local police forces. In many cities and towns, municipal and state police officers combat both petty offenses and organized crime. To avoid conflict surrounding the overlapping jurisdictions of local and federal forces, the government should task subnational police with crime prevention and community police initiatives, while charging the National Guard exclusively with suppressing the drug cartels and violent gangs across the country.
Next, the disbanded Federal Police should form the nucleus of the new National Guard. Mexico, in partnership with the United States, invested in equipping and training the Federal Police under a security program called the Merida Initiative. Attention was devoted to elevating recruitment and performance standards and conducting routine vetting of police officers. Although some of that momentum has been lost since then, the Federal Police remain a useful model for a centralized security force in Mexico.
Lastly, Mexico should embolden its courts and the legislature to conduct oversight of the security forces. There are risks to police centralization, as highlighted in the arrest last year of former Mexican secretary of public security, Genaro Garcia Luna, who allegedly accepted millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel. But advocating a strong independent judiciary could serve as a meaningful deterrent to bad police behavior.
Mexico unfurled a new judicial model and criminal code between 2008 and 2016 but fell short on training judicial authorities to work in the new system. Obrador should revitalize the effort to professionalize judges, prosecutors, and investigators. The legislature should use the budget approval process to raise questions about procurement and conduct, instead of simply rubber stamping expenditures for security forces. It should also set performance goals for the military and National Guard.
The creation of the National Guard was the first step in an essential and long process of centralizing the Mexican security apparatus. If Obrador wants to buck the trend that has seen homicide rates increase year after year, then his resolution needs to include a commitment to improve not just the quantity but also the quality of the Mexican security institutions.
Paul Angelo is a fellow in Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and was previously a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford.