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Safe Living in the OECD

Restoring Law and Order in Mexico

February 3, 2015 | by DANIEL KAPELLMANN & JAMIE STARK

"They took them alive. We want them back alive. Solidarity with the 43 disappeared students" © Sortica (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The death of 43 students in Guerrero has shown once again that Mexico belongs to the most dangerous places in the world. Yet long term solutions are needed to fix security and restore citizens' trust in the police and policy makers.

Last week, the Mexican attorney general announced that the 43 students who disappeared four months in Iguala, Guerrero, were all dead. The authorities believe that the students were attacked by municipal police and handed over to members of a local drug gang who killed them.

The disappearance of the students gave rise to a series of protests and demonstrations in numerous Mexican cities, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets demanding improved security and more transparent governance.

The case exemplifies why so many in Mexico have lost confidence in the authorities. Perhaps because of the enormous complexity of security in Mexico, few concrete solutions to the underlying problems have gained any traction.

According to the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) by Bertelsmann Stiftung, Mexico remains among the most dangerous countries in the world. It comes dead last in its Safe Living Index which compares all countries in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union. This statistic is hardly a surprise considering that 13 percent of the Mexican population fell victim to assaults or muggings last year, and the country’s homicide rate was the highest amongst OECD states.

Yet addressing Mexico’s safety problem is particularly difficult for several reasons, including disparate local and national security challenges, the collusion of criminal organizations with government agents, the lack of cooperation among organizations that could affect change, and the absence of effective leadership. Further, the enormous size and diversity of a country with 122 million inhabitants makes it tough to formulate holistic policy, thus requiring a more specialized approach for the security of each individual Mexican state. For instance, 2009 data from the OECD indicates that the homicide rate of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua near the U.S. border was 56 times higher than that of Yucatan to the south.

Inequality and History

Mexican society is deeply divided by systemic inequalities. According to 2012 data from the World Bank, a little over half of the Mexican population lives in poverty. The Gini coefficient, the most common statistical measurement for national inequality, leaves Mexico with a score that stands double-digits above the OECD average.

Worse yet, criminal organizations in Mexico have historically coexisted with state and national governments since the 1960s and ‘70s, when drug trafficking through Mexico began to skyrocket. Since the turn of the 21st century, Mexican leadership has failed to address this problematic relationship. Instead, they’ve elected to engage in ineffectual negotiations with the U.S. to decrease demand from the north, or implement an equally problematic “War on Drugs” of their very own.

More recently, the 2012 arrival of Enrique Peña Nieto to the Mexican presidency brought a new silent media strategy that attempted to enhance Mexico’s image internationally by shifting attention from internal security problems while searching for lasting solutions. This approach worked splendidly throughout 2013, until recent events reminded everyone that a deadly security crisis continued to lurk beneath the facade.

Civil Protests and Social Unrest

As a response to the recent demonstrations, President Peña Nieto offered a proposal for security reform, including the creation of new state-based police organizations, the power to dissolve local governments accused of having links with criminal organizations, and the establishment of a unique national emergency phone number, among other initiatives. This current security reform draft is undoubtedly a first step, but has nonetheless received heavy criticism for its limited approach to the multi-layered dynamics of insecurity in Mexico.

Rather than just an ordinary security overhaul, additional complementary initiatives are required to target differing problems from several angles. Realistic examples include fostering development in crime-prone areas (similar to stimulated developments that took place in Colombia some years ago), judicial reforms to strengthen enforcement and public faith in the system, and restarting negotiations for further collaboration with the U.S. on diplomatic fronts such as an adaptation of the controversial Merida Initiative. This bilateral security program, signed in 2008 between Mexico and the United States, created a shared responsibility scheme to counter drug-fueled violence affecting people on both sides of the border.

Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., says promoting a secure environment in Mexico requires active cooperation with the U.S. As a comprehensive diplomatic and economic approach would suggest, mechanisms need to be implemented to address not only the drug supply within Mexican territory but also the external demand for these goods, primarily in the U.S.

If domestic solutions for the growing violence in Mexico can be reached, they must combine ideas that are as diverse as the Mexican populace and landscape. In turn, the flow of revenue for criminal organizations must be cut off, confidence in the authorities must be restored, development and equality must be promoted, stronger social cohesion generated, and active discussion allowed to continue.

If anything is certain, these current security challenges won’t be solved overnight or in the near future. Mexico is now both resigned to and in desperate need of long-term solutions.

Daniel Kapellmann is a Mexican international relations graduate of ITAM and current Information Technologies Consultant for the Competitive Intelligence Unit. Contact him on Twitter at @Kapellmann.

Jamie Stark is an American journalist based in Latin America and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Journalism School. Contact him on Twitter at @JamieStark.

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