By The Economist
Each governed by a presidential hopeful, Mexico City and Mexico State seem safer than the rest of the country. What lessons do they offer?
THE spring getaway in Mexico sees long lines of cars escaping the fug of Mexico City for the breezy Pacific coast. But recently traffic has been going the other way. Mexico is in its fifth year of a ramped-up war against organised crime, which has caused violence to flare in states that find themselves on the drug route to the United States. Many of those who can afford it are moving to the capital, where the murder rate last year was half the national average and much lower than that in some big American cities, including Washington.
The policing of Mexico City will come under particular scrutiny as next year’s presidential election nears. That is because governance of the sprawling capital is split between Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of the Federal District, which encompasses the heart of the city, and Enrique Peña Nieto, the governor of the surrounding Mexico State, which mops up just over half of the capital’s 20m residents. Mr Peña is the front-runner for the presidential nomination of the formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, whereas Mr Ebrard is vying to carry the flag of the left-of-centre Party of the Democratic Revolution. (His main rival for the nomination, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is himself a former mayor of the capital.)
Mr Ebrard argues that mob recruitment can be stifled by getting young people into school and jobs. Mr Peña wants to hit gangsters’ finances by shrinking the informal economy. But voters may take more note of their records in office than of their campaign promises. Miguel Mancera, the chief prosecutor in the Federal District, boasts that the murder rate there is now lower than in several states that were previously considered much safer than the metropolis. Alfredo Castillo, his opposite number in Mexico State, points out that the homicide rate there is lower still.
Nine out of ten crimes go unreported in both territories, which means even accurate data on recorded crime would be of limited value. Surveys by ICESI, a research organisation, suggest that whereas the Federal District still has a higher incidence of crime than Mexico State, the latter has been hit harder by drug mobs. Residents there now worry about security almost as much as those in the Federal District; criminals are more likely to carry weapons than in any other state.
Whereas in 2007 there were many more narco-linked murders in the Federal District than in Mexico State, last year Mr Peña’s territory saw three times as many such killings as Mr Ebrard’s. Comparable neighbourhoods seem to do better in the Federal District: Iztapalapa, probably its grittiest barrio, with 1.8m people, had less than half as many narco-related murders last year as Nezahualcóyotl, a district of similar average income with 1.1m people, which lies the other side of the state line.
Saturation policing helps maintain order in the Federal District. Mexico has more cops per head than the United States. In the capital one person in 100 is a police officer. Even when those guarding public buildings are removed from the total, there are more than twice as many police per person as in Mexico State. There are several army bases, and 11,000 new CCTV cameras keep watch.
It helps, too, that the city has a single police force, whereas in all other states there are also dozens of often-corrupt municipal forces (Mexico State has 125). Pressure from mayors has stalled the federal government’s plan to abolish municipal forces. Mr Castillo envies his counterpart’s ability to summon 5,000 officers to police a football match, for instance. “When they captured La Barbie [Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a narco kingpin arrested in Mexico State last year], they asked him why he hadn’t gone to the Federal District. He said it was attractive but operationally difficult simply because of the presence of all the police,” says Mr Mancera.
“Organised crime does not necessarily involve violence,” cautions Ernesto López Portillo of the Institute for Security and Democracy, an NGO. The Federal District may see relatively few mafia-linked murders, but it hums with illegal business, from the pirate-DVD vendors on every street corner to the enormous Tepito market, where everything from exotic animals to automatic weapons freely changes hands. The city’s airport and banks attract plenty of shady custom. There is “no doubt” that the gangs which run the capital’s illegal markets are linked to the drugs “cartels”, Mr López Portillo says.
Corruption makes this possible. The police and prosecutors of both Mexico City and State are the most open to bribery in the country, according to the Mexican branch of Transparency International, a Berlin-based NGO. This month Mr Castillo’s office arrested 16 municipal policemen on suspicion of working with a local criminal gang called “The Hand with Eyes”. Tip-offs from corrupt officers cost as little as 1,000 pesos ($85), he says. Little wonder, then, that under 10% of residents of Mexico City and State trust their local officers, among the lowest rates in the country. Civic organisations have taken to going in groups to report crimes and setting up advice booths outside prosecutors’ offices.
The records of both Mr Ebrard and Mr Peña on security are greatly flattered by the failures of their counterparts in some other parts of Mexico. It is worrying that despite lying far from the centres of the drugs business they preside over such thoroughly corrupt criminal-justice apparatuses. If Mr Ebrard has a slight edge in keeping a lid on violence, that is mainly because he has a big, unified police force. That is something both men might bear in mind on the way to the presidency.