Mexico’s proposal to use GPS tracking to prevent torture by security officials is another example of unnecessarily elaborate fixes to simple but intractable problems.
The Mexican Senate approved a bill in late April aimed at reducing human rights violations, Excélsior and other outlets reported. The bill still requires approval by Mexico’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, where it is currently under consideration.
The so-called General Law for the Prevention, Investigation, and Punishment of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, and Degrading Treatment includes an intricate series of mechanisms aimed at addressing one of Mexico’s most enduring security challenges.
If it becomes law, arresting officers will be required to activate a GPS device the moment a subject is apprehended. The device would send real-time updates on the suspect’s location to a National Public Security System information center. All government officials involved in the chain of custody would be similarly monitored.
Mexico’s political leaders have a history of making grandiose proposals to quickly and decisively improve the nation’s security ills based on superficial understanding and faulty logic.
The bill also calls for the creation of a National Prevention Mechanism, which would be staffed by employees of the semi-autonomous National Commission of Human Rights. These monitors would be licensed to make surprise visits to any detention center or prison, including those under the military’s authority.
The proposed law is an attempt to address one of the most persistent problems foiling Mexico’s efforts to improve and modernize its security apparatus. It would increase penalties for government agents convicted of torture, and broaden the legal definition of torture.
Evidence of Mexican security agencies committing human rights abuses has filtered out with alarming frequency in recent years, undermining the government’s standing at home and abroad. In the sense that it tries to address a genuinely pressing problem, the spirit with which the bill was introduced is laudable.
But like so many other reform efforts, it is unclear if the proposed torture law will make any headway in creating more effective security agencies or improving the confidence of a wary and frustrated public.
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The basic shortcoming of the law’s new GPS tracking and its detailed recording of the chain of custody is that they don’t address the root causes of police brutality: the security agencies’ willingness to engage in torture and the judicial system’s unwillingness to sufficiently punish them for it. It’s unclear that the new torture law does anything to address those basic issues.
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For dirty cops bent on beating up their detainees, it appears that there are any number of ways to get around the new provisions, most obviously failing to report arrests until after inflicting whatever violations they want to on the arrestee. They could also carry out abusive behavior while respecting the proper chain of custody, or collude with allies at the National Information Center to hide illegal behavior.
For the many honest officers who do not engage in torture, the new requirements the law would establish and the cost of implementing them are simply unnecessary.
The issue, ultimately, is one of a profoundly flawed culture within certain sectors of the security agencies, and neither the addition of advanced GPS tracking nor the expanded penalties are likely to have any impact on that.
For the same reason, this law is unlikely to have a significant impact on public perception and the widespread popular frustration with the various defects of the police. Notwithstanding the showy jargon and seemingly sophisticated new processes, the only thing that will improve public opinion of the security agencies’ performance is a concrete and enduring improvement in their behavior. That is, an end to widespread abuses, a commitment to punish those that do occur, and improvement of public security conditions. This bill will have little effect on any of these issues.
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As with the proposed torture law, Mexico’s political leaders have a history of making grandiose proposals to quickly and decisively improve the nation’s security ills based on superficial understanding and faulty logic. To take but one example, in 2009 Felipe Calderón’s administration launched a program to register every cell phone number in the country, in the hope of cutting down on virtual kidnapping attempts. At great cost, the government managed to register a substantial portion of the numbers, but virtual kidnapping attempts remain extremely common.
The cell phone registry, as with the new GPS tracking proposal, demonstrates that you accomplish little by increasing the capacity to monitor alone, and in fact you may invite new abuses.
Arguably, the same reliance on simplistic reasoning and superficial — if at times technologically complex — fixes is evident in Mexico’s grand strategic plans, whether it is Calderón’s decision to declare war on organized crime in 2006, his related negotiation of the Mérida Initiative in 2008, or Peña Nieto’s decision to turn the page and deemphasize security in 2012. All were defensible ideas carried out without due consideration of the details, the counterarguments, or the possible pitfalls. Not coincidentally, they all failed to produce the desired results.