Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Share this


Edited by Robert A. Donnelly and David A. Shirk


Book Review by: Dennis Moore

January 13, 2010 (San Diego’s East County)--Yajaira Mota Orozco,a San Diego mother of two children, lost her life while eating at a restaurant in Tijuana. During December, she became the 88th victim of alleged gang and drug violence in a single month, underscoring the theme of a new book edited by Robert A. Donnelly and David A. Shirk, Police And Public Security In Mexico.

Behind the death of 23 year-old Orozco is the escalating gun violence between rival gangs in Baja California. This book is a must read for those of us wanting a better understanding of the dynamics of the relationship between the United States and Mexico, as it concerns the drug culture and violence across our borders. As 2009 closed, 124 homicides were recorded in Tijuana in the month of December alone, making it the most violent month of the year. 2009 ended on a very somber note in Baja California, with the beheading of a state auto theft investigator after he was abducted from his home. Two other men were shot to death outside a tire store and another victim was killed at a taco shop.

As a former resident myself of Tijuana for two years, I saw firsthand evidence of the circumstances that brought about this violence. Robert A. Donnelly and David A. Shirk have taken a scholarly approach in examining this violence through the insight and observations of several authors. This monograph is the compilation of insights from a number of authors, edited by Donnelly and Shirk. The premise of this book seems to be that the continued presence of the military (as opposed to the police) serving as the principal peace providers in Mexico is fraught with peril.

Donnelly holds a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and bachelor’s degrees in journalism and history from the University of Georgia. He is Program Associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. As Program Associate, Donnelly manages a MacArthur-funded research project on the patterns and practices of civic engagement and political participation by Latin American immigrants in eight U.S. cities. He also manages the Institute’s borderlands research project, examining ways for enhanced collaboration on joint management by the United States and Mexico. Prior to coming to the Mexico Institute, Donnelly was Coordinator of the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute over 2006-2008. From 1997 to 2002, he worked as a journalist in Mexico, writing for trade publications, wire services, newspapers, and magazines.

Shirk is the Director of the Trans-Border Institute and Associate Professor in the Political Science Department at the University of San Diego. Dr. Shirk received his B.A. at Lock Haven University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He conducts research on Mexican politics, U.S.-Mexican relations, and the U.S.-Mexican border. Dr. Shirk is the principal investigator for the Justice in Mexico Project (, and has been a fellow at the UCSD Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies (1998-99 and 2001-2003) and at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. (2009-10). Publications by Dr. Shirk include Contemporary Mexican Politics, co-authored with Emily Edmonds-Poli (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008), Reforming the Administration of Justice in Mexico, co-edited with Wayne Cornelius (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), and Evaluating Accountability and Transparency in Mexico, co-edited with Alejandra Rios Casares (Trans-Border Institute, 2007).

The body of work of Donnelly and Shirk makes them eminently qualified to give this balanced presentation of Police And Public Security In Mexico, and along with the various authors profiled in this monograph, gives us all a clearer picture of just what is going on south of our borders.

I recall while living in Tijuana the ominous presence of the military driving about in jeeps and larger vehicles, with guns quite noticeable. I also recall the early instances when President Calderon had the military patrolling the streets in Baja California, after guns of the local police had been confiscated, due ballistics tests to determine whether some police guns may have been used in crimes. It got to be pretty comical around that time, as the local Tijuana policeman replaced their guns with slingshots in their holsters.

As noted by the editors, in recent years, Mexico has faced a grave public security crisis. From 2006 to 2009, rampant cartel-elated violence has killed more than 13,000 people, including hundreds of police and military personnel. Given the inability of domestic law enforcement agencies to adequately address these challenges, Mexico has deployed tens of thousands of troops to restore order and combat violent organized crime groups. In addition, Mexican and U.S. officials initiated unprecedented measures to promote cross-border collaboration in law enforcement and security, including the multi-billion dollar Merida Initiative to share responsibilities in fighting the war on drugs.

These developments raise a host of questions about the course of Mexican public security and the prospects for strengthening the rule of law, according to the editors and a myriad of authors involved in this monograph. This monograph brings together the works of nine exceptional scholars who present timely analysis of these questions, provide a thorough assessment of Mexico’s principal domestic security challenges, and offer insights on how to tackle them, again, according to the editors. This monograph is part of the Justice in Mexico Project coordinated by the Trans-Border Institute at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, and generously supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The Tinker Foundation. The Justice in Mexico Project examines key aspects of the rule of law and the challenges related to reforming the administration of justice in Mexico, and provides access to relevant data and analysis through its website:

One of the moist poignant points was made by author Maria Eugenia Suarez de Garay, in her section in the book Mexican Law Enforcement Culture: Testimonies from Police Behind Bars. “It is easier to talk about abuse and corruption in the police world than to unravel their causes,” she states.”The challenge of attempting the latter has led me to dig deep into the core of police culture in Mexico. Setting aside sensationalism with which police matters are often treated, we must remember that the police are ‘manufactured’ products created by Mexico’s own society and culture. At the same time, the existing police culture is a system that communicates, reproduces, and evolves on its own, such that we must delve into the ‘spaces’ within police institutions to better understand police themselves.”

Maria Eugenia Suarez de Garay further goes on to state in regard to Police Criminality: “As Donnelly and Shirk discuss in the introduction to this volume, Mexican citizens have witnessed a seemingly endless pattern of crime and violence over the last decade: the settling of accounts among rival crime syndicates; murders of suspected drug dealers in prisons, while other traffickers are broken out of jail; a trail of murders of women in Ciudad Juarez; and thousands of robberies, rapes, and kidnappings across the country every day. Official discourse about the increase in criminal behavior has implied a polarization between ‘us’ (the good citizens) and ‘them’ (the criminals) (Stanley 2001, 242), which in some cases has led citizens to ‘take the law into their own hands.’"

She revealedl, "particularly bloodthirsty expression of such vigilantism occurred on November 23, 2004, when more than three hundred residents of San Juan Ixtayopan, Tlahuac (a municipality in Mexico’s Federal District) burned two men alive and severely injured another after the three were allegedly caught photographing children outside a neighborhood school. Not only were these ‘criminals’ not intending to kidnap the children, as the parents claim; they were agents from the Federal Preventive Police who reportedly were investigating drug trafficking. Their explanation went unheard. Videotapes confirm that while they were being beaten, the three did indeed identify themselves as police officers.”

The theme of this book seems to be that the local Mexican police can not be trusted, but don’t put too much power in the hands of the military.

Another author in the book, Guillermo Zepeda Lecona, states: “What exists in Mexico is less a model of law enforcement than an inertial pattern of police practices developed over decades in an environment shaped by a hegemonic political system and an inquisitorial and arbitrary model of criminal procedure, with very little public participation. The police, as noted, were relegated to the selective application of administrative regulations and to auxiliary tasks in support of criminal justice authorities.”

Again, not a vote of confidence in the Mexican police! For further perspective, Guillermo Zepeda Lecona states; “Generally speaking, both society as a whole and the authorities themselves mistrust the police, but instead of taking steps to improve the police, the police have seen their functions stripped away piece by piece. The police cannot take crime reports but must wait for information from prosecutors or attorneys before beginning their intelligence and crime-mapping activities. Nor can they act after a crime has been committed because, unless the perpetrator is caught red-handed, the investigation and arrest of suspects is reserved to the prosecutors.

Meanwhile, another Tijuana resident, 17-year old Jose Fernando Labastida Fimbres, was gunned down gangland-style near his home, Augustin Roberto Salcedo, a California school administrator, was among the bodies of six men found murdered in the north-central Mexican state of Durango, and journalist Alberto Velazquez was gunned down in the Mexican Caribbean resort town of Tulum.

This dichotomy can perhaps be best summed up by editor David A. Shirk, who states; “As noted throughout this monograph, domestic law enforcement capabilities are so ineffective that they have been largely stripped of key functions, and public officials have increasingly turned to the military as a last resort to provide for basic order. As observed by Zepeda, the core functions of Mexican law enforcement have been gradually transferred away from local preventive police forces and concentrated in state and federal judicial police agencies. Local police officers, who represent the vast majority of Mexican police, are not authorized to receive crime reports from citizens, are not equipped to conduct criminal investigations, and are not properly prepared to preserve crime scenes and evidence. Moreover, most Mexican police officers lead lives that are terribly impoverished and characterized by victimization, low self-image, and constant disparagement by citizens.”

Dr. Shirk further goes on to state, and this may more accurately sum up the situation in Mexico; “Meanwhile, as Moloeznik asserts, the expansion of the military’s mandate correlates with the public’s negative evaluations of the competence and reliability of civilian police agencies. As Moloeznik notes, the meager results offered by domestic police pave the way for the ‘militarization of public security.’ Among public sector institutions, the military has enjoyed the highest approval ratings in all of Mexico.

Unfortunately, the military is a very blunt instrument, and its involvement has already contributed to significant allegations of human rights abuses. Moreover, the ongoing commitment of troops raises critical questions about whether the military is in truth immune to the kind of corruption found in Mexican police agencies, whether its integrity can be sustained over an extended period, and when its domestic law enforcement mandate will finally end. Indeed, once the military genie is released, putting it back into the bottle may prove difficult.” It seems as if we are between a rock and a hard place as to whether to allow the police to do their job in Mexico, or risk the military doing their jobs for them. At least, that seems to be the assessment of this scholarly book edited by Donnelly and Shirk.

To get a clearer and balanced understanding of just what is going on south of our borders, Police And Public Security In Mexico is a must read that I highly recommend.

Dennis Moore is a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, a writer with LifeAfter50 Magazine in Pasadena, and a writer and book reviewer for East County Magazine in San Diego. He has written for the Baja Times Newspaper in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, and he is an author with a yet to be published book about Chicago politics, The City That Works. Mr. Moore is also the President of Contracts & Agency, LLC, a marketing and promotions consulting company. He can be contacted at or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.

Error message

Local news in the public interest is more important now than ever, during the COVID-19 crisis. Our reporters, as essential workers, are dedicated to keeping you informed, even though we’ve had to cancel fundraising events. Please give the gift of community journalism by donating at


"El Teo"

In a related story, Sandra Dibble, columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune Newspaper, reported the arrest in Mexico of the infamous "El Teo." More than 300 murders were attributed to El Teo, due to the control of the drug trade in Mexico.