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Addressing an Ambivalent Relationship: Policing and the Urban Poor in Mexico City



This article analyses citizen–police relations in the marginalised Mexico City borough of Iztapalapa. It demonstrates that despite predominantly negative perceptions about and experiences with the police, local residents do not abandon state institutions as security providers. The article claims that as formal and informal access to the legal and coercive powers of the police provides an important resource for local residents needing to resolve individual or collective security problems and conflicts in their favour, local police forces continue to be addressed and imagined by residents as relevant security actors.

Este artículo analiza las relaciones entre los ciudadanos y la policía en la delegación marginada de Iztapalapa en la Ciudad de México. El material demuestra que pese a las predominantemente negativas percepciones sobre experiencias con la policía, residentes locales no abandonan a las instituciones estatales como proveedoras de seguridad. El artículo asegura que en la medida que el acceso formal e informal a los poderes legales y coercitivos de la policía provee recursos importantes a residentes locales que necesitan resolver problemas de seguridad individual o colectiva, las fuerzas policíacas locales continúan siendo referidas e imaginadas como actores de seguridad relevantes.

O artigo analisa as relações cidadão/polícia no bairro marginalizado de Iztapalapa, Cidade do México. Demonstra que apesar das percepções e experiências predominantemente negativas com relação à polícia, os residentes locais não abandonam as instituições estatais como provedoras de segurança. O artigo afirma que como o acesso formal e informal aos poderes legais e coercivos da polícia fornecem um recurso importante para moradores que necessitam resolver problemas de segurança individuais ou coletivos em seu favor, as polícias locais continuam a ser vistas e imaginadas como relevantes atores de segurança.



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1 Eduardo Rojas, ‘The Metropolitan Regions of Latin America: Problems of Governance and Development’, in Eduardo Rojas, Juan R. Cuadrado-Roura and José Miguel Fernández Güell (eds.), Governing the Metropolis: Principles and Cases (Washington, DC, and Cambridge, MA: Inter-American Development Bank and David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University, 2008), p. 10.

2 For urbanisation of neoliberalism see Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, ‘Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism”’, in Brenner and Theodore (eds.), Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe (Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), pp. 2–31. See also International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and World Bank, Urban Crime and Violence in LAC: Status Report on Activities (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2008); Koonings, Kees and Kruijt, Dirk (eds.), Fractured Cities: Social Exclusion, Urban Violence, and Contested Spaces in Latin America (London: Zed, 2007); Caroline, Moserand McIlwaine, Cathy, Encounters with Violence in Latin America: Urban Poor Perceptions from Colombia and Guatemala (London: Routledge, 2004); and Rotker, Susana (ed.), Citizens of Fear: Urban Violence in Latin America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

3 Centeno, Miguel Angel, Blood and Debt: War and the Nation-State in Latin America (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), pp. 67.

4 Caroline Moser, Ailsa Winton and Annalise Moser, ‘Violence, Fear, and Insecurity among the Urban Poor in Latin America’, in Marianne Fay (ed.), The Urban Poor in Latin America (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2005), p. 147.

5 James Holston, quoted in Pérez, Orlando J., ‘Democratic Legitimacy and Public Insecurity: Crime and Democracy in El Salvador and Guatemala’, Political Science Quarterly, 118: 4 (2003/4), p. 628.

6 Joseph S. Tulchin and Heather A. Golding, ‘Introduction: Citizen Security in Regional Perspective’, in Hugo Frühling, Joseph S. Tulchin and Heather A. Golding (eds.), Crime and Violence in Latin America: Citizen Security, Democracy and the State (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), p. 2.

7 Centeno, Blood and Debt, p. 7.

8 Monique Sonnevelt, ‘Security at Stake: Dealing with Violence and Public (In)Security in a Popular Neighborhood in Guadalajara, Mexico’, in Gareth A. Jones and Dennis Rodgers (eds.), Youth Violence in Latin America: Gangs and Juvenile Justice in Perspective (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 45–62.

9 Hinton, Mercedes S., The State on the Streets: Police and Politics in Argentina and Brazil (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2006), p. 113.

10 Dennis Rodgers, ‘When Vigilantes Turn Bad: Gangs, Violence and Social Change in Urban Nicaragua’, in David Pratten and Atreyee San (eds.), Global Vigilantes (London: Hurst, 2007), p. 363.

11 Donna Lee Van Cott, ‘Dispensing Justice at the Margins of Formality: The Informal Rule of Law in Latin America’, in Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky (eds.), Informal Institutions and Democracy: Lessons from Latin America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), pp. 249–73. The term ‘network together’ is from Arias, Enrique Desmond, Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks and Public Security (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p. 203.

12 Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt, ‘Introduction: The Duality of Latin American Cityspaces’, in Koonings and Kruijt (eds.), Fractured Cities, pp. 17–18.

13 Enrique Desmond Arias and Daniel M. Goldstein, ‘Violent Pluralism: Understanding the New Democracies of Latin America’, in Arias and Goldstein (eds.), Violent Democracies in Latin America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 20.

14 Bogner, Alexander, Littig, Beate and Menz, Wolfgang (eds.), Das Experteninterview: Theorie, Methode, Anwendung (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, 2005).

15 Clarke, Adele E., Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory After the Postmodern Turn (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005), p. xxxv.

16 Mayring, Philipp, Qualitative Inhaltsanalyse: Grundlage und Techniken (Weinheim: Beltz, 2008).

17 Mayring, Philipp, ‘Qualitative Inhaltsanalyse’, Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 1: 2 (2000), p. 5, available at

18 Mike Maguire, ‘Crime Statistics, Patterns and Trends: Changing Perceptions and Their Implications’, in Mike Maguire, Rod Morgan and Robert Reiner (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Criminology (Oxford, 1997), p. 180.

19 The research project compared patterns of security governance, citizen–police relations and the legal regulation of public security provision in Mexico City and Buenos Aires (see

20 Caldeira, Teresa R. P., City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p. 11.

21 Diane E. Davis, ‘The Political and Economic Origins of Violence and Insecurity in Contemporary Latin America: Past Trajectories and Future Prospects’, in Arias and Goldstein (eds.), Violent Democracies, pp. 35–49; and ‘Undermining the Rule of Law: Democratization and the Dark Side of Police Reform in Mexico’, Latin American Politics and Society, 48: 1 (2006), pp. 55–86.

22 Müller, Markus-Michael, ‘Regieren durch (Un)Sicherheit? Die Funktion der Polizei im Kontext beschränkter Staatlichkeit in Mexiko’, Peripherie: Zeitschrift für Politik und Ökonomie in der Dritten Welt, 104 (2006), pp. 500–22; Ernesto López Portillo Vargas, ‘The Police in Mexico: Political Functions and Needed Reforms’, in John Bailey and Jorge Chabat (eds.), Transnational Crime and Public Security: Challenges to Mexico and the United States (San Diego, CA: Center for US–Mexican Studies, University of California, 2002), pp. 114–16.

23 Müller, Markus-Michael, Public Security in the Negotiated State: Policing in Latin America and Beyond (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 80–1, 92–103; de Murguía, Beatriz Martínez, La policía en México: ¿orden social o criminalidad? (Mexico City: Planeta, 1999), pp. 4956.

24 Azaola, Elena, Imagen y autoimagen de la policía de la Ciudad de México (Mexico City: Ediciones Coyoacán, 2006); Naval, Claire, Irregularidades, abusos de poder y maltratos en el Distrito Federal: la relación de los agentes policiales y del Ministerio Público con la población (Mexico City: Fundar, Centro de Análisis e Investigación, 2006).

25 Garrido, Elena Azaola and Torres, Ángel Ruiz, ‘Poder y abusos de poder entre la Policía Judicial de la Ciudad de México’, Iberoamericana, 41 (2011), pp. 99114; Carlos Silva, ‘Police Abuse in Mexico City’, in Wayne A. Cornelius and David A. Shirk (eds.), Reforming the Administration of Justice in Mexico (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), pp. 175–94; Martínez de Murguía, La policía en México.

26 Naval, Irregularidades.

27 Davis, ‘Political and Economic Origins’, p. 49; Piccato, Pablo, A Historical Perspective on Crime in Twentieth-Century Mexico City (San Diego, CA: Center for US–Mexican Studies, University of California, 2003), pp. 65–6; Wil Pansters and Hector Castillo Berthier, ‘Mexico City’, in Koonings and Kruijt (eds.), Fractured Cities, pp. 36–56.

28 On policing and rent-seeking structures, see Davis, ‘Political and Economic Origins’, p. 50.

29 José Castillo, ‘After the Explosion’, in Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic (eds.), The Endless City (London: Phaidon, 2008), p. 181.

30 Müller, Markus-Michael, ‘Community Policing in Latin America: Lessons from Mexico City’, European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 88 (2010), pp. 2730.

31 Anne Becker and Markus-Michael Müller, ‘Null Toleranz für Straßenprostitution? Altstadtaufwertung und die Kriminalisierung “unerwünschter” informeller Ökonomien in Mexiko Stadt’, in Paola Alfaro Alençon, Walter Alejandro Imilan and Lina María Sánchez (eds.), Lateinamerikanische Stadt im Wandel: Zwischen lokaler Stadtgesellschaft und globalem Einfluss (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2011), pp. 61–70.

32 The degree of marginality takes into account questions of education, income, patrimony of the household and quality of the dwelling. These are divided up into six indicators: residents aged 15 and over without junior high school degree; employed residents with a monthly work-related income up to two minimum wages; residences without a telephone; residences without ground lamination; residences without indoor tap water; and average number of people sharing a bedroom. Data taken from (no longer available).

33 The current minimum wage is 52.59 Mexican pesos a day or 1,598.736 pesos a month, which is roughly US$ 120.

34 Delegación Iztapalapa (Dirección General de Desarrollo Social), ‘Reglas de Operación 2008’ (Mexico City: Delegación Iztapalapa, 2008), p. 3.

35 Secretaría de Seguridad Pública del Distrito Federal (SSPDF), ‘Delegación Iztapalapa’ (Mexico City: SSPDF, 2007); Verónica Gil Montes and Angélica Rosas Huerta, ‘Seguridad pública en Iztapalapa: un acercamiento institucional’ (Mexico City: Instituto Ciudadano de Estudios Sobre Inseguridad, 2005), available at

36 The policing of youth cultures is closely related to growing political concerns about ‘youth violence’ and ‘gangs’ in Mexico, which increasingly portray such aesthetic ‘deviance’ as a ‘security threat’. Héctor Castillo Berthier and Gareth A. Jones, ‘Mean Streets: Youth, Violence and Daily Life in Mexico City’, in Jones and Rodgers (eds.), Youth Violence, pp. 183–202.

37 All names throughout this article are pseudonyms.

38 Philip Pettit, ‘Republican Theory and Political Trust’, in Valerie Braithwhite and Margaret Levi (eds.), Trust and Governance (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2003), pp. 297–8.

39 On the social dynamics of drug trafficking in Iztapalapa, see Carlos Alberto Zamudio Angles, ‘Las redes del narcomenudeo: cómo se reproducen el consumo y el comercio de drogas ilícitas entre jóvenes de barrios marginados’, unpubl. master's thesis, Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico, 2007.

40 Müller, Public Security, pp. 186–8.

41 Ingeborg Denissen, ‘New Forms of Political Inclusion: Competitive Clientelism’, in Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (ed.), Quality and Effectiveness: A Rich Menu for the Poor – Food for Thought on Effective Aid Policies (The Hague: Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2009), p. 420, available at

42 Hilgers, Tina, ‘Causes and Consequences of Political Clientelism: Mexico's PRD in Comparative Perspective’, Latin American Politics and Society, 50: 4 (2006), p. 137.

43 Although the block leaders were abolished in the 1990s, many residents continue to refer to their successors, the representatives of the so-called neighbourhood committees, by this name.

44 Hilgers, Tina, ‘“Who is Using Whom?” Clientelism from the Client's Perspective’, Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research, 15: 1 (2009), p. 51.

45 Fox, Jonathan, ‘The Difficult Transition from Clientelism to Citizenship: Lessons from Mexico’, World Politics, 46: 2 (1994), pp. 151–84.

46 Uildriks, Nils, Mexico's Unrule of Law: Implementing Human Rights in Police and Judicial Reform under Democratization (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010), p. 131.

47 Ingeborg Denissen, ‘Grassroots Responses to Insecurity in Iztapalapa “El Traspatio de la Ciudad”’, paper presented at the 28th International Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Rio de Janeiro, 11–14 June 2009.

48 Scott, James C., Comparative Political Corruption (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 67.

49 Holston, James, Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 203–4.

50 Arias, Enrique Desmond, ‘Faith in our Neighbors: Networks and Social Order in Three Brazilian Favelas’, Latin American Politics and Society, 46: 1 (2006), pp. 34; Huggins, Martha K., ‘Urban Violence and Police Privatisation in Brazil: Blended Invisibility’, Social Justice, 27: 2 (2000), pp. 113–34.

* An earlier version of this article was presented at the interdisciplinary workshop ‘Crime, Insecurity, Fear in Mexico: Ethnographic and Policy Approaches’ at Columbia University, New York, on 13–14 November 2009. I would like to thank the participants for their valuable comments, particularly Daniel M. Goldstein. Research for this article was conducted between 2006 and 2009 within the project ‘Public Security as Governance? Policing in Transitional and Developing Countries’ of the Research Centre (SFB) 700: ‘Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood’, funded by the German Research Foundation and located at the Freie Universität Berlin. I am thankful for the invaluable research assistance provided in Mexico City, including conducting interviews with local residents, by Carlos Alberto Zamudio Angles and Nils Brock, and for the insightful comments provided by Marianne Braig and the JLAS reviewers and editors on earlier versions of this article.



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