Solving Mexico Homicide Backlog Could Take 124 Years

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+

It has been years since Laura stopped counting the dead. “We just let them pass through now,” she said. Each becomes just one more.

Laura (a fake name to protect her identity) is a detective in the homicide unit of the Nuevo León state prosecutor’s office. Her mission is supposed to be to collect evidence to solve crimes and arrest suspects. She is, after all, a detective.

“But I’ve been getting five homicides a day, and the investigations take time, so they’re not going anywhere.”

*This article was originally published by Animal Político. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish version here.

She never received any training on how to investigate murders. Nor did she need any experience or a particular educational background to land her position, as is the case in the United States or Canada.

“All they needed to do was assign me to the post. That’s it,” she said.

She spends a good part of her week writing out purchase requests for gas or a spare part for her patrol car, or looking for soldiers to sell her ammunition left over from a seizure. She also goes to Office Depot to buy paper, pens or carbon paper for writing her reports, or sometimes toner for the printer.

“The funds aren’t always there to buy it, so sometimes we go there and beg for the toner, or we shake [the cartridge] to see if more comes out.”

Between these mundane activities, Laura tries to work on both her backlog of cases and the new homicides the prosecutor’s office assigns to her.

She said the cases “aren’t filed or closed, but there is also no follow-up police work, just the report with the crime scene information and the victim’s identification … and that’s how they stay.”

It is no surprise, then, that solving a homicide case in Mexico is the exception to the rule. In 27 states, including Nuevo León, nine in 10 crimes go unpunished.

Laura says she does not remember how many unsolved homicides are still on her caseload. But statistics can help: Using official data, if we divide the 6,237 pending homicide cases in Nuevo León from between 2010 and 2016 among its 98 homicide detectives, we get a backlog of 64 cases per state detective.

In Guerrero, the same math yields 1,000 unsolved murder cases for each homicide police detective. The national average is 102.

According to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía – INEGI), Mexico had 154,557 murders between 2010 and 2016, and in 94.8 percent of those cases, no one has been convicted.

In 27 of Mexico’s 32 states, the rate of cases without convictions tops 90 percent. Among the more successful states, Jalisco edges out with 88.9 percent of its cases unsolved, Mexico City is at 76.5 percent, and Yucatán is at 56.6 percent unsolved.

This means that Mexico has a rate of five convictions for every 100 homicide victims, whereas the Americas as a whole have an average rate of 24 per 100 victims. The conviction rate in Asia is 48, and in Europe 81, according to from the United Nations.

And Mexico’s low numbers do not correlate with a lack of funding. Its domestic security budget has grown an average of two billion pesos (roughly $105 million) each year. Between 2008 and 2015, it went from 27 billion pesos (roughly $1.4 billion) to 43 billion (roughly $2.3 billion).

Animal Político used several methods to go beyond the numbers and reveal the causes behind such high levels of impunity. Its representatives conducted interviews with more than 60 officials from 10 states, as well as with victims and lawyers. They also reviewed reports and recommendations from the country’s National Human Rights Commission, as well as expert equipment, police tools and criminal legal procedures.

Some areas receive funding but waste it on equipment that never gets used. Others simply do not receive their funding and must do without essential equipment, like forensic ambulances to transport bodies, and morgues and laboratories where they can be autopsied.

Police training is also practically nonexistent. According to INEGI, almost 95 percent of Mexico’s municipalities lack a police force sufficiently trained even to secure a crime scene.

And the problems do not stop there. The prosecutors and police officials interviewed revealed that no required protocol has been approved for how to investigate a homicide, and half of Mexico’s states do not have a prosecutor who specializes in them.

Even worse, there are cases that are indeed investigated, but whose investigations do not seek the truth behind what happened. Instead, they choose anyone convenient enough for a conviction, even if that person did not commit the crime. Results are measured based on arrest rates, which leads to the imprisonment of innocent people.

Failures in the Investigation Process

In Mexico, the process for investigating a homicide involves preventive police officers, detectives, experts and prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office.

If we divide the unsolved homicides nationwide for 2010 to 2016 among the country’s homicide prosecutors, each one would have an average of 227 cases. If we then combine the INEGI data with the force numbers reported for each state, we can estimate that an agent at the Attorney General’s Office solves approximately 1.8 cases a year. This means it would take Mexico’s prosecutors 124 years to solve the country’s backlog of homicide cases.

But that is just Mexico’s national average.

In Guerrero, a state with one of the highest homicide rates, each agent would have an average of 906 open cases.

Another national average: Each homicide prosecutor in Mexico has less than two detectives to assist with investigations.

Would prosecutors solve their cases in less time if they had more detectives to help them? Laura says yes, given that Nuevo León has 1,600 police detectives but less than 100 specializing in homicide. And that is without counting those who are assigned as security escorts or other official positions.

Former Oaxaca prosecutor Samuel Castillejos says that in his state they are up to 300 arrest warrants for homicide cases that have not been executed because there is no one to do it.

How much do the people working these homicide cases earn?

Mexico’s average monthly salary for agents at the Attorney General’s office is 22,000 pesos (approximately $1,165).

In the 20 states for which data were obtained, police detectives have an average monthly salary of 13,963 pesos (approximately $740).

Compared to other countries, Mexico’s detectives are poorly paid. In Brazil, for example, they earn $2,285 a month, which is more than double that of their Mexican counterparts, and in the United States they earn $8,650, nine times more.

Laura shared another important observation. While Nuevo León’s 21,000 pesos (about $1,112) a month may be a higher salary than in other states, agents have to pay out-of-pocket when supplies like bullets or gasoline run out.

In the state of Mexico, which borders Mexico City, state prosecutor Gabriel Gutiérrez González estimates that several of his colleagues spend up to half of their salaries on transportation or gasoline for their cars, and on other materials that run out at their agencies.

If the prosecutors’ situation seems bad, however, police officers have it worse.

They may not investigate homicides, but their function is considered vital for solving cases. According to Mexico’s national criminal code, they are responsible for securing the crime scene to prevent loss of evidence.

And there is a significant shortage of police officers, by at least half. According to the report Optimal Model for Police Functioning (Modelo Óptimo de la Función Policial), Mexico should have a ratio of 1.8 state police officers for every 100,000 inhabitants to be at the international average, but it only has 0.8 per 100,000.

On average, Mexico has eight preventive police officers ready to respond to a homicide and guard the crime scene, but there are contrasts. In Yucatán, the state with the least impunity, there is an average of 81 police officers for each homicide, while in Colima or Guerrero there are only two.

Bernardo León Olea, chief of police in the Michocán state capital of Morelia, says that recruiting new police officers is not easy, and one of the reasons is the pay. Data from INEGI show that 40 percent of police earn between 5,000 and 10,000 pesos (approximately $265–530) per month.

Going further down on the pay scale, one in five Mexican police officers earns less than $265 a month. And there are 4,900 local police officers who do not receive a fixed salary.

What about training? According to Mexico’s Interior Ministry, all local police receive a 40-hour training course on securing crime scenes, but this contradicts official data from INEGI showing that only 135 of the 2,463 municipalities in the country have local police forces sufficiently capable of “preserving the crime scene.”

A Nuevo León judge who wished to remain anonymous told Animal Político that 70 percent of the cases from the past two years have been lost before even reaching a courtroom due to errors made at the scene of the crime, which should have been secured by police.

No Experts, No Morgues

According to Ciudad Juárez forensic expert Héctor Hawley, experts are key in homicide investigations. “Our work is to establish the scientific and historical truth of a crime, which involves using evidence to look for the relationship between the crime scene, the perpetrator and the victim.”

The problem is that experts are also lacking.

Tuxtepec, the second largest city in the state of Oaxaca, is one example. The body of Avelina García had to wait for two hours on the floor of a bar without any work being done on it because the city only has two forensic experts — one of whom went to school for architecture. At the time, both experts were working on a crime scene in a neighboring community.

Moreover, the body should have been collected by a field medicine expert, who specializes in analyzing the position and characteristics of the body at a crime scene. But there are none in Tuxtepec. The city resorted to having employees from the Triunfo funeral home remove the body. They had no special clothing or shoes to avoid contaminating the scene, and no special bags to preserve the cadaver or protect themselves.

The body of Avelina García was taken to Tuxtepec’s municipal cemetery because the city does not have a morgue for performing autopsies either.

Guadalajara forensic ballistics coordinator Sergio Palacios says that they have to “double up” the bodies.

According to official data, while Mexico City has an average of nine new homicides per year for each forensic expert and 23 new cases for each chemical expert, in the state of Guerrero the averages are 51 and 115, respectively.

Back in the state of Mexico, Gutiérrez González says, “My agency doesn’t have a medical examiner, it doesn’t have a forensic expert, it doesn’t have facilities for attending an injured woman. We have absolutely nothing. In that agency, I’m the prosecutor and the garbage collector. There’s no one else but me.”

*This article was originally published by Animal Político. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish version here.

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+