Among the flood of reports on Mexico’s crime, drug-trafficking and violence crisis two recent news items caught my attention. One referred to the perverse effects of police reform, the other to the struggle of a small indigenous community in the federal state of Michoacán against local authorities and powerful organised criminal groups.
Both stories put the spotlight on serious governance problems and the helplessness and illegal involvement of the state in settings characterised by the presence of powerful criminal organisations.
Police reform strengthens organised crime
Mexico, a federal country, sports the stunning number of more than 1,600 police forces at the municipal, state and central government levels. The country´s law enforcers are notorious for their bad performance, bad pay, dubious human rights record and participation in criminal activities, especially at the local level.
Under the watch of President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) the federal government tried to clean up this mess. Entire police forces in several large Mexican cities were disarmed and overall an estimated 30,000 policemen were fired. But thus far the state has failed to regain the monopoly of the legitimate use of force and is successfully being challenged by criminal competitors.
In the state of Jalisco, for instance, 900 police recently failed the government’s vetting programme. Unidentified criminal groups responded to this by putting up an online ‘job advert’ offering fired law enforcers jobs, training and social benefits. Former policemen with experience in policing tactics and weapons training would receive preferential consideration, the ‘vacancy announcement’ said.
Unsurprisingly, the government of Jalisco put the decision of purging the policemen that had been found unfit for service on hold. Mexico´s criminals had won yet another battle.
How can the Mexican state ever gain the upper hand against organised crime when it is not only often outgunned by narcotraficantes but can’t even clean up its own police without running the risk of strengthening its criminal competitors?
‘Community policing’ against the state and organised crime
The residents of Chernán, a small indigenous municipality in President Calderon’s home state of Michoacán, decided a couple of years ago to take the provision of citizen security and the defence of communal lands against illegal loggers into their own hands.
They formed a lightly armed vigilante group and set up makeshift checkpoints on the main roads to control access to this town of 16,000 inhabitants. The people of Chernán say their aim is to stop the rapacious illegal depletion of the municipality’s natural resources, particularly precious timber, and keep criminal groups out of their jurisdiction.
They have paid a high price for resisting the criminal onslaught. According to local media, 15 comuneros have been assassinated in the past years, five were ‘disappeared’ and thirteen have been kidnapped. The ‘official’ municipal police and the mayor (presidente municipal) are said to be working with the loggers who are believed to be sponsored by powerful drug-trafficking groups.
While the men of Chernán stand guard, the town´s women have tried to negotiate with the invaders. But to no avail. The loggers chased them away at gunpoint and continued with their illegal business.
In spite of the growing local and international media coverage of this stand-off between a small indigenous community and organised criminals working hand in glove with local state agents, the government of Michoacán has not taken action. I wonder whether the federal government in Mexico City has even taken notice of this serious conflict.
Has the Mexican state given up on protecting the rights and freedoms of all of its citizens against organised crime? Is it helpless, as has been demonstrated in the case of Jalisco, or is it governing together with criminal groups? What does it gain by doing so? What is it losing?
Keep an eye on the Governance and Development blog for more Global Crime posts.