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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Democracy and Governance

Local Police Forces in Mexico are Poor

As violence in Mexico escalates, local police in Mexico lack the necessary means to fulfill their duties.


It’s named after the holy patroness of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, but the town of Guadalupe in the state of Chihuahua is far from blessed. In 2008, the town made headlines when its police force consisted of a single person—Joaquin Hernandez Aldaba. After the town’s sheriff was murdered by the Sinaloa Cartel, Hernandez Aldaba was the only police officer to show up to work the next day. Henceforth, he became solely responsible for the safety of 3,000 people living in Guadalupe. Without a gun or a partner, he patrolled the town to ease tensions and fear. After 19 days of single-handedly overseeing the town’s police department, Hernandez Aldaba and his 24-year old son were shot and killed by the Juarez Cartel. The municipal police department was then dissolved, and the military took over its duties.

Across Mexico, community policing is perishing as public spending on local police forces is shrinking. It is inexcusable that a country that has logged 250,000 homicides and 30,000 missing people since 2006 is not investing in its police, leaving them to face deadly drug cartels and preventing them from addressing local crime. Mexico urgently needs comprehensive fiscal reform to guarantee more local police in Mexico are recruited, trained, and provided basic means to fulfill their duties to their communities.

Since 2006, when Mexican authorities tasked the military to disrupt organized crime, local police were not assigned a clear role in the “war against drugs,” setting them up for failure. As Viridiana Ríos, a visiting professor at the Harvard University who specializes in violence and corruption in Mexico, said, “Sending local police to fight drug lords with no adequate training, equipment or instructions is a human rights violation on its own.”[i]

Though a Mexican state police officer earns on average $500 a month (about three times the minimum wage), many do not have access to benefits. Not even 10% of municipal police departments pay for funerary expenses of officers killed in the line of duty. Stories like Hernandez Aldaba’s are ubiquitous, as municipal police officers without guns or other weapons pay for their own uniforms and gas for their vehicles in small towns across Mexico. More concerning, however, is the fact that approximately one fourth of all municipalities in Mexico have no police at all because there is not enough money to pay for them. Under these conditions, it’s no surprise thousands of Mexicans become victims of crime every day.

Underfunded police departments also have serious repercussions on public perceptions of safety. In 2018, a survey found 80% of the population felt unsafe in their communities. Moreover, fewer than 50% of the population trusted municipal police, which may be related to the fact that police lack basic displays of professionalism, like uniforms and cars with police insignia.

Municipal police departments in Mexico are paid by local governments, which are underfunded due to widespread tax evasion. Even though there is sufficient capacity to collect taxes at the local level, governors and mayors lack the will and incentives to address tax evasion because their losses are supplemented by the federal government and the political cost is too high. As a result, in Mexico local taxes make up a mere 0.20% of GDP, while countries like Chile and Uruguay collect nearly twice as much. What’s encouraging is that in Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua, local governments have partnered with business owners to stop evasion and invest significant amounts in the municipal police. Both states experienced significant reductions in crime rates after these efforts were put into action.

This local effort could be complemented with federal funding. Although 70% of local government budgets are funded from federal contributions, very little of that money is spent on public security. From 2013 to 2018, only 1.2% of all federal contributions to state governments were designated for public security. In 2019, the share fell to 0.08%. This figure translates into only 0.5% of total state spending.

Instead of a myopic approach focusing on the military fighting organized crime exclusively, elected officials should also fund local police departments to address the high rates of common crime across Mexico. Collecting local taxes to invest in training, recruitment, equipment, higher wages and better working conditions for police officers is the first step. For violence to diminish further, the federal government must also prioritize public safety and the role of municipal police officers in achieving it.


Daniela Philipson is a second year Master in Public Policy student from Mexico City. Prior to attending the Harvard Kennedy School, she worked as a legislative advisor in the Mexican Senate. Her interests are the improvement police of forces in Mexico, drug policy, political economy, and gender equality.


Edited by Katie Miller

Photo: Police in Mexico City // Credit Geraint Rowland via Flickr

[i] Viridiana Ríos (visiting professor at Harvard University Government Department), interviewed by Daniela Philipson at Harvard University, January 30th, 2019.