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The Centralization of Policing: A Push to Integrate Local Police in Mexico and the US

Mexico’s federal police are centralizing in ways that are both similar to and different from what’s happening with local policing in the US.

A wall at the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca campus in Oaxaca City. (Photo: Simon Davis-Cohen)

There is a battle going on in the world of law enforcement: Centralized authorities, municipal governments and community residents all want local police to answer to them. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has incorporated all local and state departments’ biometric data into its Priority Enforcement Program, while the DHS has pushed for fusion centers that integrate local, state, tribal, federal and private sector intelligence across the country. DHS has also gotten local departments to participate via the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. DHS launched the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative tocreate a “unified process for reporting, tracking, and accessing” suspicious activity that “seeks to harness intelligence from the 800,000 law enforcement officers in the United States.”

This push for federal centralization of local police is not confined to the United States. In Mexico, neoliberal President Enrique Peña Nieto has not only spent record amounts (of US money) on expanding the federal and military police to purportedly curb the influence of cartels, he has also aggressively lobbied for the Holy Grail of all authoritarian police reforms: El Mando Único (the federal “Single Command” strategy). The plan would dissolve all municipal forces in the country into state forces that would answer to the federal government. According to the MacArthur Foundation-funded nonprofit, Justice in Mexico:

Under Peña Nieto’s proposal, [the states of] Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas would be the first to adopt the unified police model, and mayors not relinquishing control would face sanctions, as would governors not assuming control over municipalities in their respective states. It would involve legislation from the Mexican Congress to give the federal government more authority to take over control of municipal services or, if deemed necessary, dissolve a local government if deemed to be infiltrated by organized crime.

The reform is stalled in Mexico’s Congress, but elements have already been implemented on a state-by-state basis. According to El Universal, as of January 8, 2016, 17.5 percent of Mexican municipalities have been incorporated into state police and now operate under El Mando Único. According to Stratfor, a leading global intelligence firm, that number was “about 20 percent” in late January.

Graffiti remembering the 43 disappeared in Oaxaca City's central square. (Photo: Simon Davis-Cohen)Graffiti remembering the 43 disappeared in Oaxaca City’s central square. (Photo: Simon Davis-Cohen)

Co-opting Ayotzinapa

When the 43 Ayotzinapa students were disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero, in late 2014, Peña Nieto transformed the national scandal into an opportunity to push El Mando Único.

His appeal swayed the United Nations, but critics of the plan dispute the assumption that federal police are somehow immune to collusion with cartels. For example, the award-winning 2015 documentary Cartel Land shows how federal police repressed an armed civilian-led rebellion against cartels in Michoacán and replaced the militia with federal police admittedly infiltrated by cartels. Meanwhile, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has claimed Peña Nieto’s government has “hampered” its investigation into the Ayotzinapa disappearances — heightening suspicions that high-level politicians and members of the military were involved.

It explains why murals of the 43 martyrs read: “Fue El Estado” (“It Was the State”).

“When the federal police arrive in these communities they violate local autonomy and the ancient traditions of the communities.”

I was in the Mexican state of Oaxaca this April, where tensions between local and federal authorities carry historic baggage. A decade ago, municipal police in Oaxaca City sympathized with sustained teacher-and-student-led occupations of the city’s central square. “A lot of the local police have family who are teachers,” said Mario Guzmán, a prominent local artist and activist, at a local printmaking collective near the square. Everyone I asked attested to the local police’s implicit or explicit support of the protests. It was only when federal authorities arrived that the occupation was repressed, in June 2006. Protesters were shot at, some were killed, many were imprisoned.

This week, on June 20, federal police again clashed with teachers. This time, teachers and “social organizations” blocked a critical highway in protest of the federal government’s new mandatory testing requirements for teachers. Six were killed and 53 civilians injured.

Mario Guzmán at the print-making collective. (Photo: Simon Davis-Cohen)Mario Guzmán at the print-making collective. (Photo: Simon Davis-Cohen)

Oaxacans Remain Wary of El Mando Único

The following day, I dropped by the modest headquarters of the young Democratic Socialist Party of Oaxaca. There, a party administrator insisted I accompany him to a meeting with leaders of the Association of Journalists of Oaxaca. “They will have a lot to tell you about El Mando Único,” he assured me.

When we arrived at the Association of Journalists, I was met by its “education commission” and presented with three distinct critiques of El Mando Único and Peña Nieto’s expansion of federal authority.

Luis Martínez Cervantes, a longtime member of the Association, argued that El Mando Único’s trampling of local autonomy is illegal. “When the federal police arrive in these communities they violate the constitutionally protected autonomy municipalities [provided for] under Article 115 of the federal constitution. It’s very serious,” he said. “It violates local autonomy over public safety, and threatens the ancient traditions of the communities. It is illegal…. There should be coordination with local forces, not subordination.”

Next I spoke Wilfrido Lopéz Torres, head of information for the newspaper Tiempo de Oaxaca, who argued that even if El Mando Único was legal, it could never work in Oaxaca. “Maybe in large cities,” he said, “or in developed states where communities are well connected. But Oaxaca is different. We have 570 municipalities, many of which speak different dialects, have different customs, different ways of life, different ways of thinking.”

Most communities in Oaxaca still operate under constitutionally protected Indigenous forms of governance. In these communities police are “topiles” — an unpaid duty-based system where local men serve on one-and-a-half-year rotations.

“How will the topiles be incorporated into the new police system, when they are typically unpaid? Topiles are farmers, campesinos, volunteers — not typical police,” Torres said. “They use bats and sticks, not guns. They know the locals. They are part of the community. They feel hurt and aggrieved when federal police come into their communities.”

He pointed to Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca’s fourth largest city, as a case in point. “There are federal, state and municipal police there. Many people have been killed there, because of the organized crime, but all those police have not eradicated the violence — they haven’t made it safe. They are implementing El Mando Único, but it is not working.”

“There comes a moment when centralized governments — like the one we have had in Mexico — break. This is what is happening in Oaxaca.”

Next spoke Carlos Castellanos Alcázar, who focused on how the policing proposal does not actually address the roots of violence. “It is a delicate issue,” he said. “We need to communicate with local governments about what resources they need.” He pointed to poor social services, poverty and Mexico’s wounded economy as the conditions that allow cartels and violence to thrive. “These problems are not going to be solved with more police, or more jails,” he said. “El Mando Único is not a solution. It tramples on the autonomy of the municipalities, and is turning the federal government into an authoritarian, centralized government…. What is happening is that for political reasons, the federal government wants to criminalize ‘la lucha social’ in Oaxaca and across the country. The federal government is losing control; unity and solidarity between Mexicans is disintegrating. Now they want to govern with arms and repression. I don’t agree with this.”

Juan López Bohórquez, director of the Oaxacan news site and a member of the association’s education committee, who, like the others, has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, agreed, adding that, “There comes a moment when centralized governments — like the one we have had in Mexico — break. This is what is happening in Oaxaca. The people want a new form of government. It’s a complex phenomenon. All the corruption is breaking civic confidence. The government can’t have a single command right now, even if it were constitutional.”

Many of these sentiments were also echoed by Guzmán back at the printmaking cooperative, who said Peña Nieto’s narrative — that he is fighting the cartels — is just an excuse to justify the power grab and to facilitate resource extraction, like in the Oaxaca town of San José del Progreso, where locals opposed to a silver mine have battled with federal police. “They started to organize and protest,” said Guzmán, “They still are, but some have been killed and jailed.” Plus, he added, “The narco-traffickers are unifying with the federal government. They disappear political activists.”

Mario Guzmán's depiction of the Mexican Constitution. (Photo: Simon Davis-Cohen)Mario Guzmán’s depiction of the Mexican Constitution. (Photo: Simon Davis-Cohen)

When I took to the mountains — the land of community-run topiles — I happened upon a small cafe in Capulálpam, whose owner Baltazar Hernández was a former president of the town in 2011 and 2012, and a topile. Hernández said the federal authorities “are expanding their reach to combat drug trafficking, but many times they go places where there is no narco-trafficking. They exceed their limits.” His daughter, Eunice, in her late 20s, chimed in, “Like what happened in Oaxaca City in 2006.”

Her mother, Rosalinda Toro, said, “They abuse people,” and Hernández added that, “They enter buildings. They attack and hit people, sexually abuse women.” He and his wife agreed that all of this occurs in areas where “There are no narco-traffickers.” They were speaking of other villages — nothing like that has ever happened in Capulálpam. “It is calm, here,” they said.

Comparisons With the Centralizing of Policing in the US

On my trip back home, I reflected on how the transformations of policing in Mexico relate to the centralization taking place in the United States. Some key differences exist. For instance, unlike municipalities in Mexico, local governments in the United States have no constitutional protections. There are no legal protections that shield local forces from federal influence in the US. That is why municipalities in Mexico actually get a day in court before they are dissolved, whereas Detroit or Flint can be taken over by Michigan overnight.

I thought about how the centralization in the United States happens quietly. We know little about the information our local police are sharing with the feds. But it has gotten to the point where immigrant rights activists in New York City see no distinction between ICE and the New York Police Department (NYPD), which appear to willingly share data with the federal immigration agency. Soon after my arrival home in New York, five federal authorities (DHS, FBI, ICE, DEA and the US Attorney’s Office) and the NYPD collaborated on the largest “gang” raid in New York City history, sweeping 120 young Black men into federal prison on conspiracy charges. And the raids have continued.

But a week later, I heard news of a small township in Pennsylvania that is resisting centralization. In May, Grant Township formally legalized civil disobedience to stop the depositing of waste from oil-and-gas extraction, despite state and federal laws that legalize the dumping.

It made me think of the US media narrative that blames cartels for resistance to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in Mexico. Media reports often suggest that the one thing standing between Mexico and the fracking bonanza is the power of cartels. If a locality resisted fracking in Mexico, I wondered, would that justify its dissolution under El Mando Único?

After all, under El Mando Unico the federal government in Mexico can dissolve municipalities that it labels infiltrated by cartels. That the media credits cartels for fracking resistance is a clue, I think, to how Peña Nieto would respond to that resistance if he possessed the unilateral power he craves. This top-down logic is a threat to defiant local governments across the world.

Meanwhile, in Spain, Barcelona’s new housing activist mayor Ada Colau is encouraging Barcelona’s police not to enforce the Spanish government’s repressive “Ley Mordaza,” which criminalizes many forms of protest used by the country’s housing justice movement.

Where gains are made at the local level, whether in Grant Township or in Spain’s municipal elections, the tension between local and central authorities comes to the surface, as happened in Oaxaca in 2006 — something Peña Nieto and US authorities alike are no doubt eager to prevent.

Note: All interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated by the author.

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