Security and Democratic Governance: Debating John Bailey's New Book

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    Pamela Starr

    Well into his long career as one of the United States’ best analysts of Mexican politics and the bilateral relationship, John Bailey turned his sights to Mexico’s growing challenge of security; and we are lucky he did (John Bailey, The Politics of Crime in Mexico: Democratic Governance in a Security Trap, First Forum Press (A Division of Lynne Rienner), 2014).

    This volume is the culmination of those years of study of Mexican politics and security, addressing the links between security and democratic governance from an angle few analysts other than Bailey could have successfully adopted. Given the central importance of citizen security to democracy, of order and legality to building the trust that is an essential foundation of democracy, this book takes off from the consequent fact that understanding Mexico’s security trap is essential to understanding how to improve the quality of its democracy and democratic governance. It attempts to explain why Mexico is seemingly stuck in a low-level equilibrium between democracy and citizen security – the government’s persistent inability to provide citizen security under democratic rules of politics.

    This understanding begins with history, with the low-level equilibrium Mexico, like most of the rest of Latin America, inherited from its colonial past. This inheritance was reinforced in independent Mexico by deep inequalities and poverty, high rates of unemployment and informality, poor quality and corrupt leadership, and the capacity of strong informal institutions such as paternalism and clientelism to penetrate weak formal institutions such as the police and legal system. Over time, this context produced a path dependence that socialized society to accept this situation as normal and to adopt modes of behavior designed to get ahead – to make a living and to protect friends and family – within this national reality.

    Owing to this path dependence , to a society that is socialized to Mexico’s low-level equilibrium between democracy and citizen security, breaking out of this equilibrium will require formal laws and institutions that “outperform citizens’ expectations for some time in order to raise the equilibrium” (23). Bailey notes that in this process Mexico has some clear advantages – a general public commitment to democracy, a coherent party system, and a capable and experiences political class. But he also argues that Mexico’s struggle to enhance citizen security and democratic governance is hindered by “two central deficits” and “three core problems” (14). Mexico lacks a generalized compliance with the law and public confidence in government institutions, a situation that is reinforced by the absence of an accepted social contract that legitimates government action in the eyes of the population, a party-electoral system that insulates political elites from the society they govern making them unaccountable and often uninterested in the expressed interests of their constituents, and the slow pace of police-justice reform.

    The remainder of the book focuses on Mexico’s “two central deficits”, with the vast majority of its attention devoted to understanding better the lack of compliance with the law – in other words, crime.

    To analyze the very complex topic of “crime”, Bailey develops a very useful categorization of crimes and their relationship with democracy based 1) who commits the crime, individuals/small groups or organized criminal organizations, and 2) three ways in which crime can impact democratic governance: Crimes that undermine governability through the cumulative impact of their disregard for the law, such as tax evasion or informality; crimes designed to strongly corrupt or intimidate the state to provide informal, underground, or illegal activities; and the most pernicious but thankfully the least common in Mexico, crimes that target the logic of Mexico’s democratic regime or the mechanics of its operation (24-25). The meat of the book focuses on the most problematic crimes and criminals for Mexican democracy: the diffuse or “foundational” crimes of tax evasion and informality (chapter 2); the dramatic increase in common crime since 2006 which directly impacts the lives of citizens and their consequent perception of security (chapter 3), paying special attention to kidnapping which despite accounting for a very small percentage of crime in Mexico has an outsized impact on perceptions of security (chapter 4); and of course drug trafficking organizations (chapter 5). Bailey argues, potentially somewhat controversially, that their greatest negative impact on democratic governance in Mexico stems from their power to corrupt key institutions of the state, including the police-judicial system and local politicians, as well as individuals and businesses.

    Bailey then turns to what the government has done to deal with this challenge with particular emphasis on 2006-2012 (chapter 6). The result is a truly outstanding systematic analysis of the successes and shortcomings of the anti-crime policies of under President Felipe Calderon. Arguing that any successful strategy to enhance citizen security must be responsive to citizen concerns; have the knowledge needed to design effective policies, and possess the tools needed to carry out this strategy, Bailey easily identifies why Calderon’s efforts fell short (which both crime statistics and citizen perceptions of security demonstrate he did). The administration lacked a coherent strategy to guide its actions (knowledge) for more than a third of its term in office and did not effectively communicate it until well into 2010, it was only weakly responsive to citizen concerns (which revolved around common crime rather than drug-trafficking), and it lacked essential tools. While Calderon did make “substantial investments” in the country’s intelligence (knowledge) and federal policing (tools) capabilities, his government did not make the needed investments in the country’s judicial system and it reinforced Mexico’s tradition of institutional coordination by allowing a power struggle between the Attorney General’s office and the Federal Police to fester well into 2009 and by politicizing his anti-crime efforts.

    How might Mexico escape from its security trap? Bailey argues this will depend on the interplay among four key factors: 1) how violent crime develops, which he does not attempt to predict arguing it is far too complex, 2) the mobilization of civil society, 3) party-electoral reform, and 4) police-justice reform. Regarding the later three factors, he makes three interesting concluding observations. Somewhat ironically, crime might turn out to be the needed motivation to mobilize Mexico’s long dormant civil society making it increasingly difficult for future governments to ignore citizen concerns. Mexico’s recent political reform allowing for the reelection of Mayors and legislators might have a similar impact by making politicians more responsive to constituent demands. However, Mexico’s historic legacy of striking underinvestment in its weak judicial system continues under President Enrique Peña Nieto.

    George Grayson

    John J. Bailey, a top-tier expert in organized crime in the Western Hemisphere, has written a superb book that will become a standard reference for scholars, security-experts, diplomats, jounalists, and laymen concerned about the drug underworld. Well organized, carefully written, and thoroughly documented, his research focuses on what he deftly calls the “security trap,” which inter alia includes the difficulty in recruiting young police officers who receive training in ethics and human rights only to be suborned on the job by senior colleagues, the blatant public distrust of Mexico’s police at all levels, the violence that afflicts journalists who report accurately on cartel activities, and powerful politicians who “go unprosecuted … for egregious conduct.”

    It’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry upon reading Bailey’s meticulous, first-rate research. He sets forth the challenges facing Mexico’s leaders, and offers a “tool box” of astute solutions to fighting organized crime—better law-enforcement training, achieving electoral reform to make officials, especially mayors and governors, focus on the battle against crime syndicates, encourage NGOs to become more involved in the violence afflicting Mexico, and reforming the highly politicized judicial system.

    Indeed, President Enrique Peña Nieto could use Bailey’s clearly-delineated advice as a primer on combating murders, kidnappings, extortion, drug smuggling, the elite’s contribution to wrongdoing, and other felonies. As much as the author tries to suggest helpful approaches, his final sentence shows a penchant for realism: “The Point to underline is that important aspects of Mexico’s security trap can be addressed through accumulated knowledge and skillful policy design and implementation. In a positive sense, the shocks of the past decade are producing anti-bodies that can begin to strengthen democratic governance. The big ‘if’ remains skillful, command implementation.”

    That really is an enormous “IF” in capital letters.

    George W. Grayson, Professor of Government Emeritus, College of William & Mary and author of “The Cartels: The Story of Mexico’s Most Dangerous Criminal Organizations and Their Impact on U.S. Security” (Praeger 2014)

    Clare Seelke

    As a junior analyst tapped to cover Mexico and the proposed U.S.-Mexico security partnership known as the Mérida Initiative in 2007, I spent months reading the work of Mexican and U.S. experts such as John Bailey, an authority on both U.S.-Mexican relations and security and justice issues in Mexico. Seven years later, as a Specialist in Latin American affairs covering Mexico at the Congressional Research Service, Dr. Bailey remains a key “go to“ resource for me and other analysts, policy makers, and lawmakers in the United States and in Mexico. I would highly recommend his latest book, The Politics of Crime in Mexico: Democratic Governance in a Security Trap, to anyone interested in reading a succinct but nuanced assessment of the origins and variety of security challenges Mexico and other Latin American countries have been facing, as well as potential ways those challenges might be overcome.

    Bailey’s analysis of the shortcomings of the Felipe Calderón government’s security strategy, which the Mérida Initiative was designed to support, is likely to prove particularly useful for me and others, both within and outside government, who are closely following whether the Peña Nieto government has adopted a new strategy or not. President Peña Nieto and his advisors have rhetorically embraced some of the “escapes” that Dr. Bailey has aptly identified, such as the need to implement judicial reform; however some analysts maintain that the government’s strategy on the ground appears to resemble that of the previous government. While some aspects of the reform agenda that the Mexican Congress has adopted, such as re-election and a unified code of criminal procedure, should support the development of more accountable politicians and a stronger criminal justice system, their success depends on effective implementation. In the end, it may be up to Mexican civil society to push government officials to turn rhetoric into reality, particularly if levels of organized crime-related homicides continue to decline. The fact that Dr. Bailey found a correlation between crime victimization and political activism is a hopeful sign that those who have been affected by crime and violence, including recent rises in kidnapping and extortion, can keep security issues on the Mexican government’s agenda.

    Clare Seelke, Specialist in Latin American Affairs, Congressional Research Service

    Vanda Felbab-Brown

    One of the excellent qualities of The Politics of Crime in Mexico: Democratic Governance in a Security Trap, a new book by John Bailey, a prominent scholar of Mexico and security issues in Latin America, is its exploration of the structural factors that shape criminality and government responses to crime within the country. Of equal value is the politics lens that Bailey applies to his analysis.

    Rather than seeking to write a detailed history of drug trafficking in Mexico, Bailey focuses on the factors that underlie and enable crime in Mexico, such as informal economy and tax evasion, and that shape the broader context of rule of law and its lack of internalization by many of Mexico’s citizens, politicians, as well as political institutions. With this perspective, Bailey also tackles the difficult question that has long perplexed criminologists and policy experts about the relationship and interconnectedness (or lack of it) between so-called street or common crime on the one hand and organized crime on the other, particularly its serious manifestations in kidnapping and drug trafficking.

    Most usefully, Bailey explores how politics and political arrangements and processes shape crime in Mexico and in turn how crime shapes Mexican politics. In addition to analyzing the immediate and obvious choices that politicians face vis-à-vis crime such as standing tough on crime, or coming under the thumb of criminal groups, and beyond providing a detailed exploration of the security policies of President Felipe Calderón, Bailey delves into the deeper question of how Mexico’s current highly violent criminality, particularly if it persists, would likely shape Mexico’s new democracy.

    Indeed, one of the unfortunate characteristics of post-1980s democratization in Latin America has been that, by and large, national governments have failed to develop effective policies toward crime, and that crime and criminal violence have exploded. Even though some local governments have at times been able to innovate and suppress crime and increase citizens’ perception of safety, robust policy successes at the national level, including police reform, remain few and far between. Meanwhile, crime in Latin America has escalated to a high level (perhaps matched only by South Africa) that profoundly undermines citizen security. Too often and too easily, criminal violence in the region is attributed to drug trafficking; yet in other parts of the world with equal amounts of illicit drugs being produced, transshipped, and consumed, such as in East Asia, criminal violence is a small fraction of what it is in Latin America. Paradoxically, in addition to the troubling and dangerous trend of militias and citizen vigilante groups emerging in Latin America and Mexico, it is such groups that do at times provide at least partial relief from crime and insecurity to some segments of the population– outperforming the state in this public order function, and thus further weakening the bonds between the state and citizens.

    The “security trap” argument that runs throughout the book and is highlighted in the book’s subtitle is that the “problems of crime, violence, and corruption originate both in civil society and in state and regime.” By implication, effective responses need to involve civil society and tackle not only how the state suppresses and shapes crime, but also how civil society reacts to and either tolerates illegality or comes to internalize laws as norms. In exploring these ideas in the Mexican context, Bailey kindly refers to my concept of a competition in state-making between the state on the hand one and criminal groups on the other over the allegiance of the population. In order for laws to become internalized as norms, the state needs to effectively enforce them, punish serious violations, and create sufficient deterrence effects through law enforcement and justice systems, but it equally needs to assure that the laws are seen by the citizens as useful in addressing their fundamental human security needs.

    Vanda Felbab-Brown, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs (Brookings, 2010) and “Conceptualizing Crime as a Competition in State-Making and Designing an Effective Response,” Brookings, May 2010.

    Tania Miranda

    Gerardo Rodríguez Sánchez Lara – miembro del Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia – nos da una breve pero concisa reseña en el Animal Político sobre el último libro de John Bailey.  Sánchez Lara nos resalta la profundidad y franqueza de las palabras del profesor Bailey al señalar la compleja realidad en la que vive México, una realidad plagada de impunidad y delincuencia organizada. De igual forma, la reseña nota positivamente que, además de acertar que el país se encuentra en una “trampa de la seguridad,” como lo han estado ya varios países latinoamericanos, el libro también ofrece posibles estrategias para impulsar a México fuera de dicha trampa y hacia un mejor panorama en temas de seguridad. Para leer la reseña completa:

    Pamela Starr

    John Ackerman from UNAM sent us this link to an a recent extensive interview he gave to NACLA about the “drug war” and “self-defense” groups. It is particularly germane to this conversation since in his book John Bailey argues that one of the reasons for Mexico’s citizen security challenge is the lack of a national consensus (since the 1980s) on how to move the country forward — economically, politically, socially, and in terms of citizen security. John Ackerman is one of the most eloquent voices representing the alternate perspective — the one that has not dominated policy making since at least the mid-1980s. Read the interview here:

    • This reply was modified 6 years, 6 months ago by Pamela Starr.
    • This reply was modified 6 years, 6 months ago by Pamela Starr.

    Jorge Carrillo Olea, a retired General and former Governor of the state of Morelos, published a highly appreciative review of John Bailey’s book in La Jornada (May 14, 2014).  You can access this review here.

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