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Institutionalized Police Brutality: Torture, the Militarization of Security, and the Reform of Inquisitorial Criminal Justice in Mexico

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 August 2020

Stanford University
Stanford University
Beatriz Magaloni, Professor, Department of Political Science and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University,
Luis Rodriguez, PhD Student, Department of Political Science and Researcher at the Poverty, Violence, and Governance Lab, Stanford University,


How can societies restrain their coercive institutions and transition to a more humane criminal justice system? We argue that two main factors explain why torture can persist as a generalized practice even in democratic societies: weak procedural protections and the militarization of policing, which introduces strategies, equipment, and mentality that treats criminal suspects as though they were enemies in wartime. Using a large survey of the Mexican prison population and leveraging the date and place of arrest, this paper provides causal evidence about how these two explanatory variables shape police brutality. Our paper offers a grim picture of the survival of authoritarian policing practices in democracies. It also provides novel evidence of the extent to which the abolition of inquisitorial criminal justice institutions—a remnant of colonial legacies and a common trend in the region—has worked to restrain police brutality.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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We thank Roberto Hernández and Alejandro Ponce for their leading role in convincing INEGI of the importance of adding to the ENPOL the questions on torture and due process we use in this paper. We also thank Ana Laura Magaloni and Marcelo Bergman, who together with other researchers at CIDE, pioneered collecting these types of questions among prisoners in Mexico. Prior versions of this paper were presented at the Policing Conference at Princeton University and the Human Rights and Repression Conference at Stanford University. Prior versions were also presented at the Center for Latin American Studies and the Center on Democracy, Development and Rule of Law, Stanford University, and at the David Rockefeller Center at Harvard University. We thank participants in these events for their feedback. We thank Horacio Larreguy, Frances Hagopian, Jonathan Mummolo, Robert Bates, and Jonathan Furszyfer for detailed comments and Alice Wang and Cesar Vargas for help in proofreading our paper. We also wish to thank the editors of the APSR and three anonymous reviewers who provided valuable feedback. Replication materials can be found on Dataverse at:


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