In Mexico’s capital region, a jurisdictional fault line separates the police force of Mexico City from the police force of the rest of the State of Mexico.
The police force of Mexico City counts 84,000 uniformed officers, the State of Mexico counts 73,000—most of which are posted in the periphery of the megacity. In 2011, the last year for which a statistic can be found, 374,044 crimes were committed in the Greater Mexico City Area. In the last year, the homicide rate in Mexico City proper was 13.4 per 100,000 while in the State of Mexico it was around 18 per 100,000.
Behind the numbers lies a much more complex reality.
Specialized helicopter units race organs for transplants through the air, boats patrol canals and lagoons in the semi-rural south of the megalopolis, riot police travel in buses to the city’s more than 7,000 demonstrations, traffic police stand in the elements as crowds gather for events while thousands of cameras across the region monitor everyone’s movement.
The tasks of first response and maintaining public order in the megacity are divided as follows: Federal police patrol the highways, guard government buildings, and protect key infrastructure including the airport; Mexico City police maintain the order within the limits of the Mexican capital; and the 23 municipalities agglomerated within Mexico City each have their own municipal police force.
These four categories of police forces are subject to political appointments that are made, respectively, by the president of Mexico, the mayor of Mexico City, the governor of the state of Mexico, and the mayors of each municipality.
Appointments are often the Achilles’ heel of the police organizations, which can be infiltrated by outside organizations as part of electoral deals—especially municipal elections, which are easy targets for criminal organizations. Some force units exhibit great professionalism and high tech equipment. Others endure low pay, are required to buy their own bullets, and are generally left subject to the whims of political appointees.
Some of the most crime-ridden zones are centered exactly where two jurisdictions meet, as it makes it easier for criminals to move from one jurisdiction to another and avoid detection. A particularly notorious stretch between Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl in the State of Mexico and Iztapalapa in Mexico City has high rates of violent bus and delivery truck robberies.
The Mexican propensity for giving and taking bribes has left the police’s reputation in tatters. Among the civic police officers risking bodily harm to prevent a crime or protect a citizen there are others breaking the law. In one particularly egregious case, 34 officers in Jilotzingo were arrested for connections to organized crime.
“Our biggest problem is to gain the trust of the citizenry,” said Juan Carlos Martinez, sub-director of the Del Valle Sector of the Mexico City police force. “The program of proximity policing was formed in 2016 in the face of distrust of citizens who felt that the police might be colluding [with law breakers], our goal is to earn the complete confidence of the people.”
Often maligned and rarely appreciated, the job of these police forces is to manage the unmanageable—a seething megacity of 20 million people. Below, a glimpse of them patrolling the megalopolis.