Tijuana’s New Calm Shows Benefits of Local Policing in Mexico

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The leading candidates in Mexico’s presidential election all emphasize the need for a more centralized police force in order to combat organized crime, but the case of Tijuana suggests that strong local police may be far more effective in reducing drug-related violence.

Enrique Pena Nieto, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate favored to win the Mexican presidency has argued for the creation of a paramilitary force of 40,000 former soldiers to combat drug cartels in the country. While this force is built, he would continue to use the military to maintain order and combat drug cartels. Josefina Vasquez Mota of the National Action Party (PAN) has stated that she will continue the efforts of the current president Felipe Calderon, also of the PAN, and emphasize the role of the national police force. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has stated that he too would continue to rely on the military in the fight against organized crime. In a recent debate he referred to the military as “indispensable,” but wanted to establish a more experienced national police force so that the army could return to its barracks.

All of these arguments in favor of increased law enforcement centralization ignore Mexico’s one success story: Tijuana. Tijuana is the only place in Mexico where drug-related violence has surged and subsequently fallen to pre-conflict levels. While the government response cannot take full credit for the reduction in violence, it most certainly played a role, and that effort was not led by a federal police force.

Violence in Tijuana surged in 2008 as the Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization, fractured due to internecine conflict. One faction led by Eduardo Teodoro Garcia Simental, alias “El Teo,” favored kidnapping. The other, led by Fernando Sanchez Arellano, alias “El Ingeniero,” emphasized drug trafficking. El Ingeniero’s faction demanded a reduction in kidnappings in April 2008 which was rejected by El Teo and the resulting conflict led to high levels of violence.

The government response, known as Operation Tijuana, was a coordinated effort led by the military and Municipal Police with the broad support of civil society. Because white collar professionals were often the main victims of the El Teo faction kidnappings, the city’s professional associations demanded a strong unified response.

Many have argued that pacts were created between the police and cartels to eliminate the Teo faction. This may have been the case. But if Mexico’s leaders have an interest in reducing violence as they claim to, Tijuana appears to be a model. Local police forces in coordination with the military were able to eliminate the most violent cartel — possibly with the support of less violent cartels — and thus reduce overall levels of violence. A similar strategy arguing for the targeting of the most violent Mexican cartels on a national scale has been put forth by Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson center.

The municipal police under the leadership of Julian Leyzaola, a “tough guy” army colonel, began a process of purging corrupted police officers affiliated with the Teo Faction. This purge may have included the use of torture on Tijuana police officers.

With the January 2010 arrest of El Teo and the subsequent arrests of his top lieutenants, the Teo faction was eliminated from the city; though many of its former cells were annexed by the Sinaloa Cartel. The organized crime terrain in the city now appears to include a truce between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Arellano Felix Organization led by El Ingeniero. This new equilibrium could not have been achieved without the coordination of the municipal police force, the military and civil society.

As the following figures compiled from the Secretaria de Seguridad Publica website demonstrate, violence has subsequently returned to pre-conflict levels.

Tijuana’s Municipal Police force was strong enough to achieve this reduction in violence because it had received increased funding for salaries, training, equipment and infrastructure from the previous mayoral administration of Jorge Hank Rhon (PRI). This funding was a critical precondition for its success.

Some Mexico scholars like ITAM Professor Denise Dresser have pointed to the increases in violence in locales where the military is used to fight cartels, a point she made at a recent talk at the University of San Diego. The dominant narrative is that the military kills the leaders of these cartels and cartel lieutenants fight amongst each other for control leading to higher violence levels. Dresser counters that something bigger is at play. The entry of the military is usually accompanied by the removal of local police forces, which are viewed as corrupt and in league with traffickers. She argues that for all of the corruption of local police forces, they know and understand the local conditions and can better manage violence. Further, federal troops, provide order that is too “intermittent” to result in a lasting peace.

The Tijuana example, where municipal police forces played an important role in reducing violence, appears to support Dresser’s argument. The fascination of Mexican political elite with a national police force may thus be misguided. If the goal is the reduction of violence, Mexican efforts might be more effective if they provide support, funding and capacity-building to local police forces.

*Nathan Jones is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Baker Institute of Public Policy focusing on drug policy.

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