Why Mexico’s Next President Should Limit Army’s Crime-Fighting Role

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Two months ahead of Mexico’s presidential vote, all major candidates say the army should continue its policing role in the fight against organized crime. That’s a big mistake, argues analyst Alejandro Hope, and would perpetuate a system of perverse incentives for states to maintain the status quo.

 In a recent column, Hope argued that the current positions of the candidates are “profoundly unfortunate.”

Imagine for a second the incentives that a state governor has with federal operations. He has at his disposal a public force that costs him nothing from his budget. If the crime rate does not fall, it is the fault of federal, not local, government. If instead there is an improvement in security conditions the government can claim some of the credit (see for example the statement made by·Guerrero state government.) If there are abuses or human rights violations, the CNDH (National Commission on Human Rights) targets the armed forces or the federal police, not the state authorities.

Under those circumstances, Hope argues, no state governor in his or her right mind would seek to end the reign of federal troops in their state.

What governor would seek to accelerate the pullout of the federal forces? Why would he bother with strengthening the state institutions? The federal government may say it’s temporary but he knows that all it takes is a phone call to the governor’s secretariat or to the president for the presence of the federal forces to be extended. In public, maybe the governor proclaims a commitment to transform the police and justice system. In private, however, he will take it easy.

Hope, who until recently was a senior analyst in the CISEN, Mexico’s equivalent of the CIA, bases his judgment on the track record of state governments. According to Reforma, only six of Mexico’s 32 state governments have created an “accredited” state police, despite the fact that a federal subsidy exists to fund this move. Of those states, only Nuevo Leon has federal operations in its territory. There, despite the goal to have a new police force of 15,000 agents by 2015, as of January of this year, the so-called “Civil Force” had only 1,500 members.

“In Michoacan, it has been five and a half years with federal forces in its territory and there is no indication of when it will have a state police with the adequate size and capacity,” Hope writes.

The answer, Hope says, is to place a firm deadline for the pullout of federal troops.

What to do then? End the federal operations in one clean sweep? No. But one could place reasonable but firm time limits on them and, based on that, renegotiate the terms of federal intervention. The next president could announce with all the fanfare as soon as he [or she] takes office that the federal operations will end in two years. In the transition period, the state government would be given all the assistance necessary to develop a minimum of capacity.

Hope suggests that any governor who seeks to extend the federal presence would have to take on the entire cost of the extension, paying for it from his own budget. That way, governors would suddenly have a huge incentive to reconstruct their police forces and take responsibility for security in their states. This would “inject a sense of urgency” into reform efforts.

However, Hope does not suggest that ending the operations would mean a complete withdrawal of federal forces.

The armed forces as well as the Federal Police would maintain their normal deployments and be at the ready to react to an emergency, but they would not participate in day-to-day patrols, chasing common criminals or similar tasks.

The Federal District of Mexico City is relatively safe compared to other areas of the country. While the district has a police force larger than any of the states, Hope suggests the reason for its better security conditions is that city officials feel the political cost whenever the crime rate spikes.

When the same happens in the majority of states we will see a significant improvement in security conditions. That will not happen as long as the operations are limitless and while the governors can pass off the responsibility with zero cost.

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