As protests rage, what can Mexico do to stop more students from going missing?

Nearly two months have passed since 43 college students disappeared in Iguala. As Mexico looks to improve security in Guerrero, it could look north to cities and states along the US border that have seen marked success in cracking down on violence.  

Reuters/Carlos Jasso
A woman puts a candle next to the photographs of the missing 43 trainee teachers, during a protest at the Angel de la Independencia monument in Mexico City Nov. 17, 2014. Criticism of the government has intensified in Mexico since Attorney General Jesus Murillo said evidence suggests the students were murdered by gunmen and drug gangs in collaboration with corrupt police and local politicians. Nov. 20 is expected to see the largest protests yet.

As Mexico City prepares for the country’s largest protest yet over the missing 43 aspiring teachers from Guerrero, broader questions are being raised about the government’s ability to improve Mexico’s troubled security situation.

Nearly two months have passed since the students disappeared in Iguala, last seen in the hands of local police, who confessed to turning them over to drug gangs. Yet outrage and protests in Mexico are growing: both over the ties between organized crime and local politicians nationwide, and the weak and disorganized federal response to the suspected massacre.

Progress in reforming Mexico’s police force and strengthening the judiciary has been starkly absent in states like Guerrero. Yet some cities and states closer to the US border – Tijuana, Nuevo Leon, and Ciudad Juarez – have seen marked security improvements over the past three years. While the results have not eliminated the presence of organized crime, violence has diminished in these areas, providing some guidance as the country looks for longer-term and broader solutions.

“What everyone wants the government to do is to make sure that its security and justice systems are fair and safe,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, a Washington-based think tank. “No one expects things to be fixed overnight but [the government] needs to show progress on its justice reform, police reform, and the transparency of its institutions.”

Positive steps

What has made the difference in the north has been an outpouring of financial resources and strong community support. In the border city of Juarez, for example, where the murder rate was once the highest in the country, federal and local resources were used to build up both a new police force, as well as recreational resources to give would-be gang recruits other options. The number of murders in Juarez fell from 3,622 in 2010 to 481 in 2013.

“It was a very broad strategy that included not only hard security topics but also social programs,” says Alejandro Orozco, a Mexico City-based security consultant with FTI Consulting. “Prevention was one of the main targets.”

In Nuevo Leon, the business community led the efforts to address the crime situation, first in the city of Monterrey and then more broadly across the state. The federal participation in this case was more limited. The business community financed the overhaul of a corrupt local police force and kept the new one accountable for its performance through the monitoring of crime statistics and ongoing discussions about improvement strategies.

Despite these positive steps, these locations still face broader issues, including weak justice systems and immunity for corrupt politicians.

Rule of law

Not every attempt at state-level security reforms have seen such results. The federal government tried to initiate security from the top down in the state of Michoacán after an uprising of armed vigilante groups last year, and implemented a similar security plan in Tamaulipas state. Both states were facing deteriorating security, fueled by organized crime and corrupt local officials.

Plan Tamaulipas kicked off in May, seeking to lower some of the highest kidnapping rates in the country. In 2013, there were more than 6 kidnappings per 100,000 residents in Tamaulipas. The government reported 26 kidnappings in the state in April, but experts say that most kidnappings remain unreported because of concerns over police corruption.

The strategy in Tamaulipas focuses on sending in federal forces, including the Mexican army and navy, to help dismantle organized crime groups and shut down the flow of funds and weapons across the US border. With more than 5,000 additional forces on patrol, the efforts have boasted successes, such as the October arrest of Gulf Cartel leader Juan Francisco Saenz-Tamez, and a slight decline in the most recent crime statistics.

But a senior security official responsible for implementing the plan in one of Tamaulipas' four zones was assassinated last month in what appeared to be a targeted attack. His death came just after that of a social media journalist who had posted information about organized crime online. She was found murdered, and pictures of her body were put on the Internet anonymously, warning others not to pursue the same kind of journalism.

Tamaulipas had 108 reported homicides and 22 reported kidnappings in September, a decline from a mid-year crime surge, but roughly the same rate as the beginning of 2014.

“The fear of crime is still present,” says Arturo Zarate Ruiz, a Matamoros-based researcher with the College of the Northern Border at Matamoros. “It is difficult to say whether it is working or not. People still think things are going badly.”

One potential weakness is that the security approach centers on federal military might, rather than building up a sustainable local police.

“What happens after the intervention – is there an exit strategy?” asks Alejandro Hope, a Mexico City-based security analyst. “The massive presence of federal troops will not be constant. How you reestablish some measure of local control is a very big question.”

“It is not enough to certify and vet individual police officers,” says Dwight Dyer, a Mexico City-based senior analyst with Control Risks, referring to a security reform initiative implemented in a handful of states. He suggests financial incentives and the threat of being removed from office.

“There is not a lot of point ensuring [police] officers are honest if the judicial and security institutions are corrupt,” Mr. Dyer says.

Economic and social approach

Yet for Guerrero, one of the poorest states in Mexico, preventing the next Iguala-like scenario would require an unprecedented level of outside resources. Guerrero has overwhelming illiteracy rates, with over 15 percent of the population unable to read, and a heavy infiltration of organized crime in the local government.

“The state does not exist,” Mr. Orozco says. "The power is in the hands of the cartels.”

The former mayor of Iguala was recently charged with the deaths of six people in the events that unfolded around the disappearance of the 43 rural teacher's college students. The attorney general announced earlier this month that he believed remains of the students had been found, but they were so badly burnt that the government wasn't able to confirm the massacre via DNA testing.  

Improving state security in Guerrero would also require building a civil society and functional economy from the ground up – elements that led to some security reform success in cities like Juarez and Monterrey. 

It’s an overhaul that Mexicans seem to be calling for.

“The first protests were narrowly focused on [Iguala], but there are so many other communities in the country with similar complaints that these protests have spread like wildfire,” Dyer says.

“Mexicans are discouraged and frustrated – many also outraged – with the way things have been handled, especially security policy.”

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