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Back from the Brink: Saving Ciudad Juárez
Back from the Brink: Saving Ciudad Juárez
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Treating Mexico’s Epidemic of Violence under the López Obrador Government
Treating Mexico’s Epidemic of Violence under the López Obrador Government
Mexican children from Pueblo Nuevo, Oaxaca, are seen through a broken window, August 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Luis Plata
Report 54 / Latin America & Caribbean

Back from the Brink: Saving Ciudad Juárez

For lessons on crime prevention, Mexico can look to the example of Ciudad Juárez, the world’s “murder capital” in 2008-2010. Government and citizens worked together to bring violence down by strengthening local law enforcement and addressing socio-economic inequalities. These initiatives should be monitored, refined and expanded if Mexico is to overcome its country-wide crisis of confidence at all levels.

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Executive Summary

Just four years ago, Ciudad Juárez was under siege from criminal gang members and being sabotaged by crooked cops. Killings and kidnappings spiralled out of control despite the deployment of thousands of soldiers and federal police. Today Juárez is on the path to recovery: public investments in social programs and institutional reform plus a unique model of citizen engagement have helped bring what was once dubbed the world’s “murder capital” back from the brink. Daunting problems persist. Juárez remains an unruly frontier city of great inequalities, where traffickers and other criminals can too easily find recruits among a largely young population, many of whom still lack good jobs or education. To sustain progress, citizens and local policymakers need to assess achievements and obstacles, relaunching their partnership and upgrading efforts to strengthen local institutions and address social inequities.

Though Juárez remains fragile, there are reasons for guarded optimism: civil society leaders – including business and professional groups, non-profit organisations and academics – hold the government accountable for any increase in crime, meeting regularly with municipal, state and federal officials in a unique Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia (Security and Justice Working Group), an independent body including citizens and authorities. All three levels of government remain committed in principle to addressing the causes of violence through social programs aimed at the poor communities that have borne the brunt of the killings.

President Felipe Calderón’s administration invested more than $380 million in 2010-2011 under its Todos Somos Juárez (TSJ, We are all Juárez) initiative to finance social programs designed to make communities, especially their young people, more resistant to violent crime. Much of the money went to expanding existing programs for the urban poor and building or renovating community centres, schools and hospitals. But the impact of these efforts was never evaluated, largely wasting the opportunity to create innovative, sustainable programs, subject to outside review and evaluation.

When he took office in December 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto promised to make crime and violence prevention central to his security strategy, adopting and adapting some of the strategies initiated by his predecessor. Among his first acts was to order nine ministries to join forces on a national program. Its objectives are sweepingly ambitious: promote citizen participation and a culture of peace and respect for the law; address the risk factors that render children, adolescents, women and other groups vulnerable to violence; create and reclaim public spaces to foster peaceful coexistence; and strengthen institutional capacity at the federal, state and municipal level.

The National Program for the Social Prevention of Violence and Delinquency channels funding into high-risk zones chosen to serve as laboratories for social change, including three within Ciudad Juárez. This “socio-urban acupuncture” approach holds promise. Officials say crime rates have already fallen within many of the target zones and promise that detailed surveys will measure impact going forward. But the effort in Juárez itself has been plagued by delays and controversy. The lack of transparency in project selection and monitoring has given rise to accusations of mismanagement and political favouritism.

Local authorities are justifiably proud of progress in reducing homicide and other high-impact crimes, such as kidnapping, but more is needed to keep Juárez from again falling victim to a surge of violence. The model of citizen participation embodied in the Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia should be extended to the neighbourhood level, so that working class and poor communities are empowered to monitor violence-prevention projects and work with law enforcement to combat crime. Local police must play a more important role. Authorities on the municipal, state and federal levels should open their efforts to greater scrutiny, crafting long-term strategies that can be continued past the next electoral cycle.

The achievements of Juárez and the surrounding state of Chihuahua offer hope for other Mexican cities and regions still suffering epidemic rates of violent crimes, including murder, often at the hands of criminals in league with local authorities. The focus of federal action has shifted to the north east, where the state of Tamaulipas now leads the country in kidnappings, and the south west, where the state of Guerrero and the city of Acapulco have the highest rates of homicides per capita. National authorities have poured soldiers and police into these regions while promising funding for social programs, much as they did a few years ago in Chihuahua.

But they have not been able to stem the crisis of confidence in government at all levels: municipal, state and federal. The kidnapping and apparent killing of 43 students from the rural teaching college of Ayotzinapa by a criminal gang allegedly backed by corrupt police has sparked violent protests in Guerrero and mass marches in Mexico City. Perhaps the most important lesson of Juárez is that crime must be tackled through the combined effort of authorities and citizens. Opaque, top-down solutions that fail to address the concerns of local communities – eliciting their ideas and soliciting their support – are unlikely to produce sustainable progress against the scourge of violent crime.

Listen to Mary Speck, Crisis Group’s Mexico & Central America Project Director, describing how the citizens of Juárez, a city once dubbed the world’s “murder capital”, prepared the way for a new approach to combat organised crime. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA/Paul Fisk

Treating Mexico’s Epidemic of Violence under the López Obrador Government

Combatting organised crime has been the centrepiece of President López Obrador’s governing platform, but murder rates in 2019 are set to reach an all-time high. In this excerpt from the first update of our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support the Mexican government’s turn toward comprehensive security reforms and peacebuilding policies. 

Rising violent crime rates remain the greatest threat to public security and stability in Mexico. Over the past twelve years, large criminal syndicates have fragmented into smaller groups, sparking a plethora of lethal, region-specific armed conflicts. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in office since December, has made the reduction of violence a centrepiece of his governing platform. But homicide rates in 2019 are on track to surpass the record levels of previous years, peaking in states such as Guanajuato and Jalisco. The tide of killings is partly due to the breakdown of cartels into approximately 200 smaller armed groups, which has generated competition among those groups and undercut the ability of crime bosses to enforce discipline. At the same time, the Mexican state, and its security services in particular, continue to suffer from corruption, collusion with illegal actors or even criminal capture of local police forces. In the absence of deep reforms to the country’s security and justice institutions, Mexico is likely to continue suffering enormous violence. President López Obrador still enjoys the political capital and popularity to set a new course, but his administration has yet to lay out clear policies toward critical issues such as scaling back the role of the military in providing security and curbing human rights violations by the security forces.

As the EU and its member states define their cooperation with the new government, they can help address Mexico’s security crisis by:

  • Recommending that Mexico reframe its “war on drugs” as a set of internal armed conflicts, which would allow a shift to regionally tailored security policies, including peacebuilding tools such as young combatant demobilisation in the country’s most embattled regions.
  • Encouraging the Mexican federal government to return public security provision to civilian police forces following reinvigorated efforts to reform the security and justice system. These reforms should stress above all the implementation of effective oversight and accountability mechanisms led by independent civilian appointees with the power to impose disciplinary measures on state actors, most urgently police, armed forces, and prosecutorial services.
  • Backing the creation of elite task forces, comprising thoroughly vetted and trained officers, within the federal police and prosecutorial bodies to give oversight and accountability mechanisms teeth by specialising in investigating corruption, collusion, and violence within security forces. These units should also help protect local reform efforts. 
  • Supporting security reform through technical assistance and sharing best practices with Mexican policymakers, including during the regular political dialogues on security and justice between the EU and Mexico. Specifically, the EU could offer assistance for local mediation and demobilisation efforts, women-led victims’ collectives searching for disappeared persons, the National Search System for People, and promising police reform initiatives at the local level.

The Search for Security and Accountability

Though Mexico’s security crisis has mutated, government policies remain anchored in the narrative of a “war on drugs” against professionalised trafficking cartels that the state expects to win largely through military might. Offensives against specific criminal targets have succeeded on their own terms: more than have been 150 arrested or killed over the past twelve years and many larger criminal structures fractured as a result. But insecurity remains rampant. The government’s failure to re-establish and strengthen local civilian institutions has allowed smaller criminal groups to continue operating and re-emerge in even more violent ways. In Michoacán, for example, at least a dozen armed groups broke from a larger organisation following a federal civil-military intervention launched in 2013. Similar patterns are evident elsewhere: with neither the state nor any single criminal actor dominant enough to impose order, smaller groups have become locked in conflict over patches of markets, territories, and populations.

The result is an expanding patchwork of region-specific armed conflicts. The toll on civilians is high, with ordinary citizens caught up in the crossfire, families of criminals targeted and internal displacement on the rise. Violence is exacerbated by cycles of personal revenge, for instance in the mountains of Guerrero, where blood feuds, involving killings and forced disappearances, can stretch on for decades. Criminal groups exploit entrenched networks of corruption to collude with state officials, with public institutions becoming participants in criminal conflicts. In some regions, these groups bribe security forces to act against their rivals and overlook their own crimes.

Ending enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings should be a priority.

Reversing Mexico’s growing violence requires that the state undertake reforms at federal and local levels. This would require negotiating gradual civilian scrutiny of the military’s conduct and abuses. However, the López Obrador administration’s dependence – at least in the immediate term – on the army and navy to provide public security hinders such efforts. The creation of a National Guard as the cornerstone of López Obrador’s new security policy in March 2019 appears unlikely to help. Indeed, with that force’s core personnel and high command stemming from the military, its design and creation suggest that López Obrador has opted for greater militarisation in the hope of quick results rather than to take on the uphill task of creating effective oversight of the conduct and performance of Mexico’s security forces.

Exactly how the government will work to stop abusive conduct in the security forces and dismantle criminal structures within them is unclear. Despite López Obrador´s promises, the government has produced no concrete proposals to monitor or prevent future human rights abuses perpetrated by the police or army. Ending enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, which have been documented by the UN High Commission on Human Rights and others, should be a priority. Exposing those most responsible for criminal misconduct in the security services requires finding ways of protecting lower-ranking officers forced into criminal activity by their commanders. As the government establishes the National Guard it should ensure adequate training for new officers and enforce internal rules through the establishment of independent civilian oversight with teeth, potentially in the shape of ombudspersons with disciplinary powers, acting in close coordination with prosecutorial task forces dedicated to investigating wrongdoing by the security forces.

Aside from these reforms, the Mexican government must look beyond centralised strategies and the use of force to resolve the country’s internal conflicts. Earlier security policies, such as the military offensive against organised crime initiated in 2006 and the creation of a new Federal Police in 2009, have emphasised grand, top-down solutions. But tackling localised violence requires a regionally tailored approach.

Given fiscal constraints on the Mexican state and flawed federal institutions, targeted support for promising local security and justice reforms and peacebuilding initiatives offers an alternative. Such local initiatives include, for example, recent efforts to reconstruct police forces in municipalities such as Xalapa in Veracruz, where police have worked closely with independent security experts but are unable to confront rising criminal violence on their own. The government should also strengthen initiatives, such as those led by community organisations, to mediate among feuding armed groups and clans to interrupt cycles of revenge killing. These efforts should also endeavour to reach local agreements on how to demobilise young combatants, who are the main victims and perpetrators of lethal violence and form the operational backbone of armed groups. Any move in this direction would have to establish when pledges of non-repetition and redress for victims by former combatants constitute sufficient grounds for offering support to get a job, resume normal civilian life and, where necessary, benefit from reduced sentences and state protection against criminal leaders.

Over 40,000 have disappeared in Mexico according to the most recent official figures.

At the federal level, one important step to protect and nurture such local reforms and initiatives would be the establishment of elite task forces within police and prosecutorial services. Such task forces, by providing focused support and coordinating tightly with each other and with local authorities, could help contain the inevitable violent opposition from criminal leaders who will resist any attempts to restrict their activities. In conjunction with independent civilian oversight within security forces, they could also spearhead efforts to tackle corruption, collusion and illegal violence within the police and the newly established National Guard, and pave the way for an eventual return of public security provision in Mexico into civilian hands.

The recent reactivation of Mexico’s National Search System for People – over 40,000 have disappeared in Mexico according to the most recent official figures – with search commissions to be installed in each federated state, offers another opportunity. If equipped with sufficient funds as well as a robust mandate, these commissions could identify remains in clandestine graves and seek to clarify the circumstances leading to the disappearances. This would help shed light on local conflict patterns, foster victims’ access to truth and justice, help restore communities torn apart by violence and rebuild trust between state and society. Such measures are particularly important given the López Obrador administration’s estrangement from civil society after its February announcement that the state was ending all funding for civil society organisations. In particular, support for women-led victims’ collectives searching for disappeared people through the National Search System would mark a clear commitment to collaboration with civic initiatives for an urgent but previously neglected cause. It would also boost proceedings in criminal investigations by incorporating the knowledge acquired by women’s collectives over years of searching for loved ones despite a lack of state support.

How the EU Can Support Mexico’s Reforms

In its political dialogue with Mexico, the EU should express support for López Obrador’s turn toward comprehensive security policies, including policies oriented toward peacebuilding, and recommend that his initial efforts be extended in order to tackle the reality of multiple internal armed conflicts. It should recommend concentrating resources on a limited number of pilot projects aiming to test specific regional policies toward insecurity, including municipal police reforms as well as mediation and demobilisation initiatives involving local communities and civil society organisations.

EU support should reinforce both local initiatives and critical federal level reforms. The reactivated National Search System for People merits particular attention and support, given its potential role in establishing the truth as to the violence that has ravaged various regions, restoring trust in the state and offering a model for future collaboration with civil society. Supporting women’s collectives searching for the disappeared, for instance through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), represents a potent practical and symbolic measure aimed at backing the government’s efforts to address past injustices. This would also highlight the essential role of civil society in reducing violence in Mexico at a time when its relations with the new government are under strain. At the federal level, the EU should provide technical support and political backing for creating the elite task forces within federal police and prosecutorial bodies. At the same time, it should emphasise the importance of civilian oversight of the armed forces, calling for civilian jurisdiction in the case of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings involving the military and greater overall transparency through the creation of civilian ombudsmen offices.