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December 22, 2021

2021 in Review

In many ways, the past year demonstrated that violence and security policy in Mexico must be understood in long-term context. Reflecting on the major trends we saw, here are our five takeaways from 2021:

The déjà vu future of US-Mexico Security Collaboration: The year began with the bilateral security relationship in a state of near crisis following the arrest of General Salvador Cienfuegos. Hopes that Biden and López Obrador would overcome these tensions to reimagine strategies for combatting crime and violence crystallized in the Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities, announced this fall as a replacement for the Mérida Initiative. Although the new agreement offered promising elements including a focus on addiction and violence reduction, the overall bilateral security strategy continues to emphasize traffickers and trafficking groups while investing in militarized enforcement

The Corruption of Elite Security Forces: 2021 brought a steady stream of stories about abuses committed by elite security forces, ranging from specialized police units in Coahuila and Tamaulipas, to kidnappings by Marine special forces. That “elite” anti-crime forces both failed to reduce violence and often engaged in criminal activity themselves is more predictable than surprising. In Nayarit, for example, a major overhaul of state police went hand-in-hand with corruption and abuse by politicians colluding with organized crime. What is surprising, however, is that despite these clear patterns, policy continues to favor reforms that reduce, rather than increase, transparency.  

The Subtle Deceits of Militarization: Over the course of the past year, it became clear that the Guardia Nacional—the cornerstone of AMLO’s security policy—was transitioning not from quasi-military force to civilian force, but from quasi-civilian force to a full-fledged branch of the military. How and why that came about is a longer story, but the structure of the Guardia Nacional, its recruitment patterns, and its interface with local security policy all suggest that this militarization was neither accidental nor necessary.

The Expansion of Political Violence: Plenty of attention focused on murders of candidates during the run-up to the June 2021 midterm elections. Central to these discussions was the changing nature of political violence: while there was, in fact, precedent for the violence, at the same time the changing dynamics of local politics meant that the sphere of political violence expanded as new actors faced new risks. Neither was there clarity about the impact of violence, as in Sinaloa where organized crime mobilized to support the ultimately victorious Morena gubernatorial candidate (and obstruct the operations of the PRI), but probably did not tip the outcome of the election.

Cautious Optimism on the Forensic Crisis: In September, the Interior Ministry (Secretaría de Gobernación) presented the coordinating group for the Extraordinary Mechanism of Forensic Identification. As of August 2021, there were 52,000 bodies that remain unidentified. The mechanism will seek to alleviate pressure in medical examiners’ offices by performing forensic exams on remains and bone fragments that arrived to medical examiners’ offices until December 2019. There is no national law regulating the mechanism and success is contingent on achieving MOUs with local attorney general’s offices and medical examiners. However, there is room to be hopeful in view of the international assistance currently being provided by the United Nations, Germany´s Corporation for International Cooperation, and USAID. Success in identifying those 52,000 bodies could improve rule of law perceptions in Mexico.

What We're Reading:

  • This essential investigation from Wendy Selene Pérez and  Paula Mónaco Felipe about how a private company obtained the federal government’s DNA database, and subsequently used its access to maneuver in search of contracts with state governments, while manipulating victims and their families.


  • Mexico is a country of victims, yet the institutions set up to support them have never functioned well, even for the most high-profile victims. In this report, Alejandra Ibarra and Balbina Flores Martínez detail how the Comisión Ejecutiva de Atención a Victimas (CEAV) operated in ways that were politicized, capricious, and often ineffective when it came to attending to families of murdered journalists.

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