A woman’s death in Mexico fueled outrage. Can it fuel police reform?

Whitney Eulich
·6 min read

While the United States is focused on the Derek Chauvin trail, a reckoning with an eerily similar encounter is unfolding in Mexico.

On March 27, Victoria Esperanza Salazar Arriaza was killed outside a convenience store in Tulum, when a police officer knelt on her back to restrain her, breaking her neck. The encounter between Ms. Salazar, a Salvadoran living in Mexico on a humanitarian visa, and four police officers was videotaped by a bystander. Her death sparked nationwide protests – and has drawn international attention to police violence in a country that spent nearly a decade reforming its justice system, including the police.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was quick to condemn the event as murder, and the officers were promptly jailed and charged with femicide. This is just one of a handful of high-profile deaths at the hands of police over the past year, which observers say could mark an important moment in pressuring institutions and the government to prioritize police reform.

Police are some of the lowest paid public servants in the country. Training is haphazard, and corruption ever-present. In lieu of police unions are informal “brotherhoods,” which can perpetrate cronyism and abuse. On paper, Mexico’s legislation around policing is advanced, with lauded regulations, for example, around use of force. The problem is that enforcement has long been skirted, and the current administration has cut police budgets at state and municipal levels.

There have been numerous high-profile incidents this year alone. At least 12 police officers were implicated in the killing of a group of mostly Guatemalan migrants in January, and earlier this week seven officers in Jalisco were arrested for the kidnapping and disappearance of a family returning from Easter vacation.

Public attention has increased pressure, as has a more robust civil society. And the international atmosphere, with police violence generating mass protests from the U.S. to France to Colombia, also lends a sense of urgency.

“Often there are these critical junctures, these moments where something really bad happens and we have an opportunity to press for change, and this is hopefully one of those moments in Mexico,” says David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico project at the University of San Diego. “Unfortunately, we have a lot of these moments in Mexico,” he adds. “But I think this is something we’ll be talking about for more than just a couple weeks.”

Long-term change

Nearly two-thirds of people detained by the police in Mexico were beaten or hit during arrest, according to the most recent survey by Mexico’s statistical agency. In almost 50% of cases, the person carrying out the arrest didn’t identify themselves as law enforcement.

There’s been “substantial development in terms of both professional standards and use of force” among the police over the past two decades, says Juan Salgado, a researcher at the World Justice Project in Mexico City. Yet “there’s little consequence for police brutality in Mexico,” he says. That squares with Mexico’s sky-high impunity rates overall. About 1.3% of crimes are resolved, according to the nongovernmental organization Impunidad Cero.

It’s not just the lack of negative consequences that are the problem. “There are no positive consequences for good conduct,” says Elena Azaola Garrido, an anthropologist who studies prisons and security in Mexico. An estimated 450 officers are killed annually in Mexico, according to the nonprofit Causa en Común, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a police officer. Many police report having to pay their superiors “dues” to hold on to their jobs, and promotions are often doled out based more on relationships than accomplishments or completed trainings, Dr. Azaola says.

Mexico passed sweeping judicial reforms in 2008, including more police training around collecting evidence and gathering testimony.

“Mexico has over the last decade or so been raising the bar for police conduct and prosecutorial conduct,” says Dr. Shirk. But reforms weren’t fully implemented until 2016, “and it takes a long time to see institutional change.”

These medium- to long-term changes require continuity from future governments, says Erubiel Tirado, a security specialist at Ibero-American University. He worries that the current administration’s move back toward militarized policing under the newly formed National Guard, paired with sizable federal budget cuts, could undermine progress. Federal funding for federal and local police has dropped consistently over the past 15 years, from 1.2% of gross domestic product to 0.8% today.

“There are no resources for training or professionalizing the police, especially at the municipal and state levels. The government has not just abandoned the police, they’ve pushed any progress backward,” says Dr. Tirado.

Pushing ahead

Protests swarmed Tulum’s city hall in the days following Ms. Salazar’s death, and reignited over the weekend during her burial. Those hit hardest by police violence tend to be the most vulnerable: migrants, people living in the streets, poor people, and often women. But rarely are abuses caught on tape or brought to national attention.

The case in Tulum, and the January murders of nearly 20 migrants near the border, hit on two flash points fueling outrage. Violence against women has received increasing attention over the past several years, with a diverse, increasingly powerful feminist movement spurring marches and protests against the government’s perceived inaction. And in some of these cases, foreign governments have called out Mexico’s violence against their citizens, shining an even harder-to-avoid light on the problem.

As a result, officers involved are often quickly charged and imprisoned, as was the case in Tulum. But that misses the bigger opportunity to do more than root out “bad apples” and dole out “performative punitism,” says Dr. Shirk. There needs to be institutional soul-searching and the tackling of structural issues.

“These protests are necessary and important, but they’re not enough,” says Dr. Azaola. Protests may put pressure on officials, but they often don’t lead to identifying what needs to change and how. The fact that the laws on the books are quite advanced means legislative action isn’t necessarily the end game. “It comes down to [changing] institutional inner-workings,” enforcement, and weeding out corruption.

But there are cases where street protests have forced the government’s hand, and that gives some people hope.

“Socially and culturally there’s more pressure today on Mexico police agencies than there was 20 years ago, to engage in these kind of systematic reforms,” Dr. Shirk says. “It might not feel like that, but the fact that we’re even talking about this case is a reflection of increased accountability. Society won’t stand by.”

Dr. Salgado points to a video that emerged in Jalisco last year, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. A bricklayer was detained by police, reportedly for not wearing a face mask. When his family went to collect him from the police department, they were directed to the morgue.

Street protests exploded, and in Guadalajara, young protesters began to be abducted. But the repeated, high-profile human rights violations led the state to form a working group of civil society representatives, victims of crime, scholars, and government officials to try and develop better accountability and human rights frameworks for police.

“It may be too early [to applaud this initiative],” Dr. Salgado says. “But this is unusual in Mexico.”

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