May 28, 2014

Public Perceptions Exacerbate Security Problems in Mexico

By Patrick Corcoran
InSight Crime

Mexico's newest survey of popular perceptions of public security reveals a country of citizens pessimistic about their physical integrity and distrustful of their leaders, as well as a government unable to make meaningful advances.
As Excelsior recently reported, the National Survey on Victimization and Perception of Public Security highlights a series of significant challenges for Mexico's government, both in the realm of public relations and in terms of actually improving the institutions charged with combating crime.
According to INEGI, the statistical agency charged with carrying out the poll, Mexican citizens are highly unlikely to report crimes they see. The national average of reported crimes is just 12.2 percent of the total, but in the state of Guerrero, which registered the lowest such level in the country, the rate of reporting dropped all the way to 6.7 percent. (As a comparison, in a recent study the US Bureau of Justice Statistics said that a little more than half of all violent crimes were not reported in the United States.)
In what are both a cause and a consequence of the poor rates of reporting crimes, Mexican citizens have very pessimistic attitudes about the likelihood of crimes being punished. Across the country, 83 percent believe that crime is rarely or never punished. That figure rises to 94.5 percent in Mexico City and 90.4 percent in the State of Mexico. Nowhere in the country is it lower than in Yucatan, where, despite being one of the nation's safest states, 69 percent perceive crime as being rarely or never punished.
Mixed up in both of the above issues is the fact that Mexican agencies are woefully understaffed. Nationally, security agencies deploy 146 people per 100,000 residents, compared to a UN recommendation of 222 police officers per 100,000. Furthermore, the overall figure is weighted by the outlier that is Mexico City, where the rate is 908 security officers per 100,000 residents. In contrast, in conflictive states like Michoacan, Coahuila, Baja California, and Sinaloa, the figure ranges from 12 to 21 agents per 100,000.
Another alarming sign of a dysfunctional justice system is the high proportion of prisoners who have yet to receive a sentence. Nationally, the rate is 35 percent, though again the average is distorted by outliers, and the majority of the states are below the mean. In the five worst states, the figure ranges from 49 percent to 58 percent. However, there seems to be no correlation to a slow judicial process and a violent state: the worst offender is tourist haven Quintana Roo, and none of the five are among Mexico's most violent entities.
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The staffing issues are theoretically easy to take care of; with larger spending outlays and a commitment to hiring new recruits, Mexico would seemingly be capable of overcoming any personnel shortfall. However, as InSight Crime has reported and Mexico's recent history amply demonstrates, simply throwing money at the problem rarely has a positive impact. Many governments do not have the absorptive capacity to handle vast influxes of new cash or the capability of incorporating large numbers of competent personnel quickly.
Furthermore, previous recruiting drives in state and federal agencies show that a mere commitment to hire new recruits often does not translate into a more effective force. Whether the pool of potential officers is too limited or interest among the worthy candidates is too low, expansions in manpower (such as the federal police's over the past decade) do not result in a markedly more effective force.
It is common to view statistics about poor crime reporting rates as a demonstration of government incompetence and an issue of citizen insecurity. But such statistics also have a powerful impact on the operations of organized crime groups in Mexico. The lack of willingness to report crimes obviously reduces the likelihood that criminals, whether petty car thieves orSinaloa Cartel hit men, will be caught. It also undermines authorities' ability to gather intelligence on criminal activities, and it gives criminal groups far greater freedom to operate than they would otherwise have.
One demonstration of this is that the states with the lowest levels of crime reporting include some of the most perennially violent. Joining Guerrero were Nuevo Leon and Sinaloa, two northern states with a long-time presence of powerful criminal groups, both of which have experienced a substantial amount of violence in recent years.
The larger impact of the statistics revealed in the poll — from the poorly staffed agencies to the enormous proportion of prisoners yet to receive a sentence to the widespread lack of confidence among the people — is in their support for the vicious cycle that prevails in Mexico. Overwhelmed citizens have no confidence in their officials, which means that government agencies are denied vital collaboration with civilian populations, which in turn erodes their performance.
The situation leaves only one big winner: the criminals.
This commentary, "How Mexico Public Perceptions Feed Security Problems," was first published in InSight Crime on May 20, 2014 and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization. InSight Crime's objective is to increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Patrick Corcoran ( is a writer and international relations student who specializes in Mexican affairs.

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