Burghers increasingly take justice into their own hands – and are encouraged to do so by the state
In Mexico City on 23. November two federal police officers burned alive by a lynch mob. Local residents thought the officers, who were taking photos as undercover officers near a school, were child abductors. The case sheds light on the helplessness of citizens in the face of a justice system they cannot trust, but also on the effects of the discourse on criminality that is increasingly fueled by the media and politics. Paradoxically, the left-liberal government of the capital plays the role of the pioneer in the matter of "preventive crime fighting" – and thus combats in the first place the poor.
Lynch Law in the Tlahuac District of Mexico City
On the first of August of this year, a law on citizen culture came into force in Mexico City, establishing rules of conduct for all public spaces. On the first day of its validity, 332 people were arrested in the Mexican capital on this basis. The Human Rights Commission of the capital quickly protested. The law discriminates against people who, because of their economic situation, are forced to earn their living on the streets: Parking lot attendants, windshield cleaners, children who perform as clowns or acrobats at rough intersections, prostitutes, because they are all now considered to be "predelincuentes", thus potential criminals. According to the "Burger Culture Act" any Mexican over the age of 11 can be arrested if he or she commits a misdemeanor. The catalog of acts punishable under this law is as extensive as it is imprecise: it includes, for example, the exportation of services without having been solicited, or the sale of goods on the street without a license.
The law comes on the heels of controversial former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s recommendations as private security adviser to the Mexico City government. Mayor Manuel Lopez Obrador of the left-liberal Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), better known for its social policies, officially signed Giuliani in October 2001. A few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he was asked to develop a new security concept for the Mexican capital for the modest sum of 4.3 million dollars. The bill for the ordered "Zero Tolerance"-concept should be adopted by some of Mexico’s richest entrepreneurs, including billionaire Carlos Slim.
This initiative by the PRD city government came as a surprise for three reasons: First, because such a harsh repressive line is not exactly what one would expect from a left-liberal mayor in Mexico City. Second, because Giuliani’s "Zero Tolerance"-concept was itself highly controversial in the U.S. and u.a. had led to a record number of police assaults. Moreover, other U.S. cities, such as z.B. San Diego, with an alternative model of community policing, has produced crime rates as low as New York’s zero tolerance. And finally, thirdly, because the official crime statistics for Mexico City have shown a continuous decline in the number of crimes committed since 1997, and the country’s crime rate is barely above the international average. In Mexico, too, as a study by the Criminological Institute of Lower Saxony recently found for Germany ("The Bose is always and everywhere"), which the burgers "perceived criminality" to be developed detached from the real numbers.
But what does the law on burger culture have to do with the lynching of the two undercover investigators in Mexico City?? In line with the neo-liberal model of the self-responsible citizen, the law encourages the capital’s residents to take responsibility and initiative in the fight against crime. And: it calls for the idea of crime prevention before the actual fight against crime, d.h. of a criminal law that strikes on suspicion before any crime is committed.
In Mexico, public safety has been one of the most prominent topics in political discourse since the late 1980s, and the media has been eager to help protect it. Whether or not citizens actually face an increasing threat of "Crime" and for itself is not of concern. The debate about public safety in the Mexican capital reached its climax on 27 September.June of this year, when more than 250,000 people demonstrated their fear of "the crime" and demanded appropriate measures from the politicians. Although various right-wing extremist organizations had called for the demonstration, which u.a. People from across the country’s political spectrum took to the streets to demand the introduction of the death penalty.
Demonstration against crime on 27. June 2004 in Mexico City
Characteristic of the discourse on the "the crime" and "the violence" is that they overlook structural, social and/or political causes of crime and thus make the corresponding phenomena absolute as a threat instead of analyzing them. As Frankfurt political scientist Joachim Hirsch notes, one of the remaining tasks of the state, given its internationalization in the new world order, is to guarantee a safe investment climate and to expand its repressive capacities.
This has been accompanied – in Mexico since the late 1980s – by a continuous increase in resources for fighting and preventing crime and a considerable expansion of police powers, most recently through the "Law on Burger Culture".
As part of a series of reforms in the police and judicial system since 1988, the latter has not only been given considerably more resources, but numerous new police units have also been established. The PolicIa Federal Preventiva (PFP), to which the two lynched officers belonged, was itself created only in 1999 as a silver bullet against organized crime.
In Mexico, members of armed police units and ex-police officers are often involved in crimes themselves. Drug-fighting units deal drugs or anti-kidnapping squads make money from kidnappings. All this is nothing new, but it certainly does not increase the sense of security of citizens. As the Brazilian criminologist Ana Teresa Lemos-Nelson points out, the PFP was
Throughout Latin America, the fact that police officers have been held less and less legally accountable for their actions is a direct consequence of the Cold War. The clandestinization of the security forces was directly related to the kidnapping and elimination of suspects as a common practice, which (…) is a decisive hurdle for a democratic reform of the public security systems.
Even though Mexico did not experience a classic military dictatorship, there was nevertheless a "dirty war", in the course of which several hundred left-wing activists disappeared, were tortured and murdered. To this day, anyone who does not allow himself to be bought off and sticks to an unconfident oppositional stance runs the risk of becoming acquainted with such methods. Only recently, the longstanding state party PRI announced that it was a scandal to try former President Luis EcheverrIa for his responsibility for the 1968 massacre of students: This, he said, was an attack on the entire institutionality of the political system and thus could not be tolerated (see also: Dealing with the Past or Location Politics?).
Under such circumstances, more police and better equipment did not lead in a straight line to more burger safety. The real problem behind the perceived insecurity of Mexicans is not so much the crime itself, but rather a glaring lack of legal certainty. Less than 10 % of the crimes committed are actually punished by the justice system. The police and judiciary are not only thoroughly corrupt and in part criminal, but also politically controlled. Despite the political change in 2000, law enforcement and the judicial system still function largely according to the principle of patron-client relationships based on traditional henchman structures, where the strongest is usually proved right. The judiciary, at both the national and local levels, is dependent on a powerful executive, and therefore always judges to please it. Those who have no money and no political influence usually do not even need to file a complaint, because it will not lead to an investigation, if it is filed at all. Particularly unprotected are those groups of the population who, due to race or gender, are already among the underprivileged.
The lynchings in Mexico City are a result of this legal uncertainty. Those who cannot hope for an efficient police force to protect them, who have no chance of enforcing their rights in court, and even less of winning a lawsuit against representatives of the state – regardless of the actual legal situation – sooner or later resort to vigilante justice. Lynchings are not uncommon in Mexico. A common shoplifter can be caught just as easily as someone suspected of beheading people for obscure reasons, as recently happened in the southeastern state of Chiapas. Whether initiatives like the "Burger Culture Law" or the continuous expansion of police powers will change this situation is questionable.