On the evening of October 9, 2013, 50-year-old elementary school teacher Laura Ramírez was run over by a car and killed on Avenida Dr. José María Vertiz near downtown Mexico City. The vehicle fled the scene.
Authorities contacted Ramírez’s only close family member: her daughter, Veronica, then a 22-year-old student. They asked her to come to the prosecutor’s office to identify her mother’s body and give a statement. Veronica arrived around 10 p.m. that night, accompanied by an uncle and a handful of friends. She had no idea how the process worked — that, for instance, she was entitled to legal representation and counseling. Through her shock and grief, however, Veronica had the presence of mind to realize that there were security cameras at the intersection where her mother had been killed.
Mexico City is home to an enormous urban surveillance system, the Centro de Comando, Control, Cómputo, Comunicaciones y Contacto Ciudadano, otherwise known as the C5. Because the hit-and-run had occurred on a major road, the system’s cameras were in place to capture it. “There were at least four along the path the car took,” she remembers. She immediately mentioned this to the officials. Thanks to the footage, she hoped, the police would at least be able to identify the car, track down the driver, and catch her mother’s killer. An officer responded that, given the gravity of the crime, the footage would automatically be set aside. Veronica pushed: Did she need to do anything to secure the videos? The officer assured her that it was all part of official protocol: The police would request the evidence and add it to the investigation file.
As Veronica stood outside the office between interviews, a man who identified himself as a legal aide for the prosecutor’s office approached her and asked if they could speak privately. Veronica found the request strange, but her friends encouraged her to go, and she followed the man into a private office. He asked her to repeat her account of the incident, which he took down with a brown marker on sheets of scrap paper. “There are two things you need to do,” he told her. “You’re going to need the videos, and you have to take them to the morgue. For both of those things, I’m going to charge you 4,000 pesos [roughly $200].” The demand caught Veronica by surprise. She argued, but he gave her an ultimatum: The recordings, he pointed out, were erased once a week, and they could easily vanish. “Either they’ll get lost, or you’ll give me the money.”
Initially, Veronica refused to pay the bribe. She didn’t even have enough to bury her mother. But friends who had accompanied her to the station managed to scrape together 2,500 of the 4,000 pesos, which they gave to the aide. The bribe would at least ensure, they hoped, that authorities would secure the C5 footage and solve the hit-and-run.
But when Veronica returned to the office to follow up on the investigation weeks later, officials claimed that the videos weren’t available, despite their previous promises. Eventually, they informed Veronica that they did have two relevant clips from that night. One showed the headlights of an approaching car, but just before it came into view, the camera turned to face another direction. The other captured the intersection several hours after the accident took place. Neither involved the car that killed Veronica’s mother.
The officials, Veronica learned, hadn’t filed the necessary paperwork. Instead of requesting the five relevant recordings, they had requested only two. “Because I didn’t give them the full amount of money, it was like the fee only covered what they got me,” she recalls. And since private citizens can’t solicit C5 videos, she had no other recourse. Two years later, with no further progress made, the case was closed. It was classified as “unresolved” and, moreover, as “unresolvable.” Veronica laments that, instead of helping her find her mother’s killer, “this technology, which is supposed to be an instrument of justice, became a chip for extortion.”
Since the 2009 inauguration of the C5 (then known as CAEPCCM or C4i4), Mexico City’s authorities have prided themselves on having one of the most ambitious and sophisticated video surveillance systems in the world. The C5 encompasses more than 15,000 units, with more than 30,000 cameras, 12,700 loudspeakers, and 15,000 panic buttons, spread over 1,485 square kilometers. Each unit includes environmental sensors to detect unusual weather, seismic events, gunshots, and explosions. Everything runs on a fiber-optic network, and data is channeled to control rooms and mobile response units linked to 911 call centers and a missing-persons hotline. In addition, there are four command-and-control centers (known as C2), which focus on specific neighborhoods, and mobile units that can be deployed to monitor large public events. On major highways, cameras are equipped with software to automatically detect license plates. The city has spent more than $660 million (about MX$13 billion) in total on the infrastructure and software, and in 2019, another billion pesos (about $50 million) was budgeted to replace and update cameras.
Mexico City proper has nearly 9 million inhabitants, and when one includes the surrounding metropolitan area — a region nearly 10 times the size of New York City — that number reaches 22 million. Within it, one finds densely packed self-built settlements, rural farming communities barely reachable by paved roads, and some of the most desirable real estate in Latin America. Climbing property values, however, are a relatively new phenomenon. In the 1980s and 1990s, Mexico City, formerly known as DF, the Distrito Federal, was notorious for its pollution and high crime rates, which earned it the nickname “El Defectuoso” — the Defective.
As the city’s authorities worked to change the capital’s image, the C5 was supposed to fulfill a world-class promise. In exchange for near-constant surveillance, residents would see their home become cleaner, safer, more data-driven, a destination for both tourists and capital. But that hasn’t happened. Mexico City’s district attorney estimated last year that 94% of crimes in her jurisdiction go unreported. Of the fraction of homicides that have been reported, more than 86% remain unresolved. Furthermore, only a tiny number of police investigations involve evidence taken from C5 cameras. According to an ex-C5 official, Rafael Prieto Curiel, only 0.002% of crimes committed in Mexico City are captured on tape.
A handful of high-profile cases over the years have relied on the C5 system. But it’s far more common, cliché even, for police to tell victims that the relevant camera wasn’t working at the moment of the crime, or, as Veronica experienced, that the footage is no longer available. According to an as-yet-unpublished report from the think tanks Data Cívica and R3D, approximately 60% of crimes in the city take place within 200 meters of a C5 camera, but police use C5 footage in less than 1% of investigations. This isn’t the result of technical problems: According to government data, approximately 14,000 of the 15,000 modules are functioning at any given time. Nor is it a matter of storage capacity; most cameras auto-delete every seven days, and official protocol dictates that all videos related to a crime be saved once a report has been filed.
The C5 is a powerful tool. But like any tool, it’s only as useful as the person who wields it. Just as the C5 can help solve investigations, it can also be leveraged by police and prosecutors’ offices to support existing forms of criminality. In Veronica’s case, C5 footage became collateral for extortion. In other instances, police have been known to leak confidential photos and videos to the crime press, the nota roja. “If the videos benefit the police or the prosecution, they’re leaked to the media,” says Alejandro Jiménez, a criminal defense lawyer who has come up against the system’s limitations in court. “If the videos make them look bad, the police disappear the footage.” To those allegations, officials tend to repeat the same lines: The cameras weren’t working. The footage was lost. That incident never happened.
And when police themselves are involved in crimes, impunity is all but guaranteed.
Late on a Thursday night in February 2017, Carlos — whose name has been changed because of fear of retaliation — stumbled out of El Botellón, an upscale tapas bar in the trendy Condesa neighborhood. The 26-year-old had been drinking with friends since the afternoon. They had started at a nearby cantina, then migrated to the bar, and by the time Carlos called his Uber, the day had taken its toll on him. While waiting for his ride on Tamaulipas, an avenue home to a smattering of trendy bars, cafes, and restaurants, Carlos tripped and fell onto the sidewalk. As he pulled himself up, two police officers approached and began to berate him. “They told me I was way too drunk, that it was public indecency,” he recalls. The officers grabbed him, one from behind, and attempted to wrestle him into a police car. He felt a blow to the face. After that, he remembers nothing.
It was still dark when Carlos woke up and found himself sprawled on the asphalt of a residential street. His legs ached, his face felt tender, and his leather jacket was matted with blood. As he gathered himself, Carlos registered his surroundings: He was in the upper-middle-class Nápoles neighborhood — several kilometers south of the bar where he had been drinking. Between the bar and the spot where he had awoken, if they’d taken the most direct route, Carlos and the police would have passed a few dozen C5 cameras at least. On his way to work, still visibly injured, Carlos ran into two coworkers who, shocked by his appearance, called for emergency help. A police escort took him to the city’s law enforcement headquarters, the Secretaria de Seguridad Ciudadana building on Avenida Insurgentes.
At police headquarters, Internal Affairs officials took down his account. After his report was filed, Carlos continued chatting with one of the officials, who offered to show him footage from the previous night. The man pulled up videos of the police car in question and opened a GPS tracker that showed part of the car’s route. “Yeah, it was more or less over here,” the official pointed out. There seemed to be an easy solution to the incident: They just had to identify the officers on duty. Thanks to the C5, all the evidence was there.
But the official seemed to want to leave the investigation at that. “He made it clear that he was scared,” Carlos says. Carlos also knew that his attackers could easily come after him again if he was too insistent or tried to file another report. Frustrated, he asked why the officers thought they could get away with this kind of criminal behavior, especially knowing they would be caught on tape. The official avoided the question. “Police like that are out there,” he told Carlos with a shrug. “We don’t have any control over them.”
A culture of police impunity is a big reason why Mexico ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world; it is currently listed 130th out of 180 on the Global Corruption Perception Index. Corruption pervades nearly all sectors of the country’s society. Officials routinely demand bribes to get children a place in their parents’ school of choice, to secure a company a major government contract, or to get a citizen out of a traffic ticket. A fifth of Mexico City’s residents report having been victims of this graft — the highest percentage in the country. When it comes to police, however, the problem is particularly egregious. In 2017, Mexico had more cases of police corruption than actual police: There were 1.6 cases reported for every officer. Even within departments, lower-level officials are regularly extorted and forced to pay illegal dues to their superiors. In certain regions, entire police forces are known to work hand in hand with organized crime. According to the national institute of statistics, only an estimated 1% of all reported corruption cases end in a criminal conviction.
There’s no single cause behind the corruption endemic in Mexico’s police and justice systems. Some security consultants point to low police salaries, which prime officers to accept bribes. The U.S. State Department blames a lack of training and funding for law enforcement and public officials. Others cite failures in accountability. And others still see the police as embedded within a violent state structure dedicated to protecting the elite. Regardless of its roots, corruption has been identified at every level of the country’s police force, justice system, and government. Journalists and human rights activists who speak out against it are regularly murdered.
At the same time, though, the problem is common knowledge. Activists, foreign diplomats, politicians, and members of the public routinely describe corruption as among the country’s most urgent priorities. As Veronica experienced, justice officials frequently attempt to extort crime victims who want to report them. And as Carlos saw, police are disinclined to pursue lines of investigation that might lead to their colleagues. This raises further questions: If everyone knows the police are corrupt, why would the local government spend billions to increase its surveillance capacity? Why would Mexico City’s officials and business leaders, in their quest for a safer capital, propose cameras as the answer? For years, the government has touted the ever-expanding C5 as part of its crime-fighting strategy. But could the C5 ever really solve the city’s crisis of violence? And do leaders actually expect it to?
Over the past two decades, Mexico City has undergone a makeover. As many a lifestyle blog has gushed, the central districts of the city are now world-renowned for their artistic, architectural, and gastronomic offerings. Within three years of The New York Times naming it the No. 1 travel destination of 2016, tourism had increased by nearly a third. In turn, rents have shot up dramatically, and evictions in the central districts have spiked. Long-term tenants of old buildings have been forced out to give way to Airbnbs, which often charge per night what a native chilango, as the city’s residents are called, would pay for a week or even a month. To draw that kind of money, the capital had to shed the reputation of crime and insecurity that dogged it for decades.
As Mexico City underwent an economic and cosmetic transformation, so too did its security strategy. David Ramírez, an analyst at the think tank Mexico Evalúa, describes the transition to Mexico’s present-day approach to law enforcement as starting in the late 1990s, when officials adopted a community policing model. The idea was to divide the city into sectors and assign dedicated police officers to each, so as to facilitate relationships among police, business owners, and residents. When now-President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took over as mayor in the early 2000s, he pushed these initiatives even further. In consultation with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose tenure was characterized by aggressive policing of low-level crime, López Obrador embarked on a program to revitalize the downtown Centro Histórico.
The Centro Histórico is home to such iconic landmarks as the Torre Latinoamericana, the first skyscraper in Latin America; Palacio de Bellas Artes, an art nouveau opera house and storied music venue; the National Palace; the Metropolitan Cathedral; the main square, known as the Zócalo; and the imposing pre-Hispanic Templo Mayor. The area was notorious in the early aughts for being unsafe, but the plan was to turn it into a tourist mecca. “One of the commitments [López Obrador] made to business owners was better security,” Ramírez says. “They started to install cameras, panic and alarm buttons.” Among Giuliani’s recommendations was to adopt a version of “broken windows”–style policing, which emphasizes zero tolerance for crimes like graffiti and outdoor urination. At the same time, Mexican businessman Carlos Slim, one of the wealthiest people in the world and the CEO of the telecommunications company Telmex, invested heavily in the Centro Histórico. He helped fund the contract with Giuliani’s consulting firm, purchased a swath of old buildings in the area, and created the Centro Histórico Foundation, which poured money into restoration efforts.
In 2006, López Obrador was replaced by Marcelo Ebrard, now the country’s foreign minister, who continued his predecessor’s mission. A west-to-east stroll through the Centro Histórico is a virtual walking tour of his accomplishments. Ebrard refurbished the gold-domed Monumento de la Revolución and its surrounding plaza, where teenagers now gather to make out and buy corn on the cob from street vendors on weekends. He repaved and illuminated Juárez, the boulevard that stretches into the heart of the city center. Along its northern edge, Ebrard also renovated the sprawling Alameda Central, largely ridding the now immaculately manicured park of street vendors. At the end of the Alameda is the Bellas Artes opera house, across from which stands the Telmex tower, the icon of Slim’s empire. Over it all, looms the Torre Latinoamericana. Of its 44 floors, Slim owns eight.
The mogul played a major role in the neighborhood’s transformation. In 2009, three years into Ebrard’s six-year term, the city unveiled the “Ciudad Segura” program, which created the infrastructure for C5. Telmex, along with the French telecommunications company Thales, won the contract to install 8,000 cameras at a price of nearly $400 million — more than MX$5 billion. That program began in the Centro Histórico, where nearly every block features some symbol of Slim’s empire. Just past the Torre Latinoamericana is the Casa de los Azulejos, a blue-tiled 18th-century palace Slim acquired and converted into a franchise of Sanborns, his department store and diner. Down on the pedestrian street of Madero, his Museo del Estanquillo holds a spot among Mexican and international chains and colonial-era churches. On a typical weekend afternoon, the street is packed shoulder to shoulder with tourists visiting the city and families on outings.
The C5 complemented the broken-windows strategy. The cameras have been especially useful in helping authorities identify what they call “administrative faults”: smaller offenses, such as graffiti, littering, and public drinking. Data on crime in Mexico City is sparse, but Leonel Hernández, from the think tank Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano, notes that the Centro saw a decrease in certain low-level crimes after the C5 was installed — mugging rates, for instance, improved in the previously ill-lit Alameda. The number of foreigners arriving at the Mexico City airport went from just under two million in 2009 to almost five million in 2019. (The Covid-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on Mexico’s tourism industry, however — in June 2020, officials reported an estimated 75% decrease in visitors nationwide.)
But the rise in tourism — and surveillance — has not corresponded with a reduction in all crime. In fact, since the implementation of the C5 system in 2011, violent crime in Mexico City, as in the rest of the country, has actually risen. (In Mexico, violent, or “high-impact,” crime includes homicide, femicide, kidnapping, trafficking, mugging, robbery, extortion, rape, and drug distribution.) What’s different in the capital is the nature of crime. Mexico City rarely sees the kinds of extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, and grisly mass murders that have become common elsewhere in the country since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Those acts are usually seen as warnings to the government or to rival gangs. In Mexico City, such graphic incidents don’t take place on a massive scale. When there is an exception, an act of lurid violence, the victims are typically poor people whose deaths are easily overlooked.
As tourism entrepreneur Rocío Vazquez notes, the particular dynamics of crime and punishment in Mexico City — namely, the crackdown on small, broken windows–style offenses — have enabled travel companies to sell it as a safe destination for visitors. Vazquez, who owns a food tour company in the capital, takes issue with that line, but she concedes that it does contain some truth: “I think the city is getting more dangerous, but the tourist experience has gotten safer.” Aside from the occasional pickpocketing on the subway, visitors remain in a relatively secure bubble. She attributes this partly to initiatives focused on protecting them: concentrating emergency-response capacity in tourist zones, for example, and the recently implemented “tourism police.” Vazquez is critical of this approach. “Of course, tourists should be safe, but never above the people who live here,” she says. As the C5 cameras monitor the streets, they determine, little by little, whom the city really serves.
To Juan Manuel García Ortegón, the system is simply a tool with enormous potential to improve governance in North America’s largest city. An engineer by training, García Ortegón is a wiry man in his late 40s who has served as head of the C5 since 2018. I met him on a humid September afternoon at the C5 headquarters, a complex in the eastern part of the city, with thick gray walls that enclose nearly an entire block. Inaugurated by Ebrard in 2011, the grounds are manicured and pleasant, a crisp, sprawling lawn set off by sleek architecture. As I entered the main building, a camera angled at the door took my temperature and registered whether I was wearing a face mask. (During the pandemic, the C5 system has been used to monitor the prevalence of mask usage throughout the city.)
García Ortegón greeted me in a brightly lit conference room with a large convex window. The ground-floor command center stretched below us, 14 desks wide and a dozen deep. Each workstation was manned by a police officer attending to three or four screens of varying sizes. A massive display depicting a map of Mexico and more than 20 thumbnail camera streams from throughout the city stretched across the far wall, evoking a NASA control center. It was nearly rush hour, and live feeds of all the major highways ran alongside those of smaller roads, street corners, and metro stations. Since it’s impossible to watch all cameras at every moment, officers are instructed to be mindful of behavior patterns. As people tend to withdraw cash in the mornings, for instance, that’s when C5 workers pay extra attention to cameras trained on ATMs.
Monitoring events as they unfold is an art unto itself. García Ortegón described the skills of dispatchers who could home in on suspicious characters and track them from one camera feed to the next. He chuckled as he noted that some employees had gotten particularly adept at identifying potential muggers. Of course, even if a dispatcher successfully predicts a mugging, they can’t stop it in real time. What they can do, though, is guarantee a quick police response. García Ortegón proudly told me that almost 70% of crimes captured on the surveillance cameras result in an arrest, compared to 15% of all crimes reported through the traditional system.
In addition to monitoring video streams, dispatchers also manage input from six other sources, including 911 calls, panic buttons, police on the ground, and the city-run mobile app and social media accounts. (A glance at the latter reveals reports of fallen lampposts, blocked driveways, punctured water mains, and complaints about public urination.) To García Ortegón, the most important part of a command center like his is not the technical apparatus but the protocols that dictate how people use it. “Whenever one thinks of command centers, the first thing that comes to mind are the cameras,” he says. “But what a center really needs is for a response to an incident to be holistic and unified.”
In a perfectly working system, the call-taker makes no decisions and spends no more than a minute and a half gathering information: the person’s name, the incident, and the location. They then select from a menu of more than 300 preprogrammed options, following automated prompts, before alerting dispatchers to whatever is happening. The day I visited García Ortegón, he’d recently met with the city’s disaster-response services to update the rain protocol. “For that, we have 20 subclassifications: ‘tree fall,’ ‘cable fall,’ ‘flood,’ etc.,” he says. “If a car accident happens in Álvaro Obregón, and the subcategory is ‘crash with injuries,’ the Red Cross dispatcher is informed and so are the C5 and C2 police dispatchers.”
García Ortegón sees the C5 as a vast information-gathering tool capable of coordinating data of any kind. Dispatchers can look for traffic jams and accidents, then direct response vehicles accordingly. During the rainy season, they can track areas prone to flooding and dispatch emergency services. García Ortegón grows excited as he explains the system’s possibilities. He has an engineer’s gusto for the finer points of technological innovation and will rattle off ideas in encyclopedic detail. His vision of civic improvement via technological innovation is also backed by powerful allies: Since taking office in December 2018, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum has thrown her support behind the city’s commitment to tech-informed decision-making. Four years remain in her tenure, and García Ortegón is optimistic about what the C5 can accomplish in that time. “We want to transition from a public-security command center to a true hub of operations,” he says.
When it comes to the system’s ability to deal with crime, García Ortegón notes that the process is riddled with obstacles, and recording incidents is only the beginning. Even if the cameras work perfectly, there are many ways in which a potential case can go wrong. Murders or assaults might be filmed but never formally reported. Or they might be reported but never investigated. Investigated, but never resolved. Although dispatchers can ask to file police reports, García Ortegón acknowledges that it will be a long time before crimes caught on video are guaranteed to make it into investigation files. Yet for the C5 to function as intended, data can’t fall through the cracks.
García Ortegón admits that the cameras create a perception of safety that surpasses their true impact — a misconception that is reflected in public-opinion polling. “Whenever there is a participatory budget vote,” he says, “there are two projects that always win by default: [security] cameras and outdoor gyms.” At the very least, city residents seem to feel as if the C5’s omnipresent gaze keeps them safer.
The rub is that there’s no evidence to support the idea that the mere presence of cameras prevents crime. What it typically does, says Steve Trush, a security consultant who specializes in surveillance and human rights, is, rather, criminalize certain kinds of behaviors over others and disproportionately target the poor. “You might see a decrease in larceny,” Trush says, “but it has no impact on white collar crime.” At the C5 headquarters, García Ortegón readily admits that the cameras don’t even deter most street crime. Dispatchers have seen drug deals, murders, and ransom payments happen directly beneath them.
Last June, armed gunmen opened fire on Mexico City’s police chief, as he drove through the upscale neighborhood of Lomas de Chapultepec. The man survived, but the assault, which was attributed to the Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, resulted in the death of two bodyguards and a young woman caught in the crossfire on her way to work. A full-scale search was launched in the aftermath, and police used C5 footage to locate and apprehend 19 men believed to be responsible.
Five years earlier, an even grislier multiple homicide in a quiet, upper-middle-class Mexico City neighborhood sent a wave of fear through the capital. On July 31, 2015, five people were killed execution-style in an apartment in Narvarte. Two of them, Rubén Espinosa Becerril, a photojournalist, and Nadia Vera, a human rights activist, had come to the city to escape death threats in the state of Veracruz. In the days after the massacre, police gave information to the press that laid out a thorough and stigmatizing narrative. It suggested that the homicides were the result of a robbery gone awry, that Espinosa had been visiting the women in a brothel, and that drugs were involved. To support this narrative, police leaked C2 surveillance footage of three people leaving the apartment. Within weeks, authorities had arrested three suspects, whom they claimed matched the men in the video.
Those familiar with the situation, however, saw that as a smoke screen to deflect attention from what was really going on. Both Vera and Espinosa had recently fled Veracruz out of fear of governor Javier Duarte, whose tenure was marked by violent repression and corruption scandals. Even as they left the state, they knew the government was watching them. And in the weeks before their murders, both Vera and Espinosa made statements preemptively blaming Duarte for anything that might happen to them. Despite all that, the investigation did not take possible political motivations into account. Authorities cited the surveillance footage as evidence of a robbery gone awry, and they prosecuted the case along those lines.
Together, these incidents capture how Mexico’s justice system treats violent crime. When the victims belong to the political elite, the system responds quickly and aggressively to catch the perpetrators. When those same elites are linked to the violence, the system either turns a blind eye or focuses on what authorities would prefer it to see. The inconvenient realities — that a politician might be enjoying support from a cartel, or that a law enforcement unit is entangled with organized crime — go unexamined. Low-level offenders are punished, and the people who order the violence are conveniently forgotten. More than five years later, while suspects in the Narvarte case have been arrested and charged, the people who may have paid them have not been prosecuted.
Top officials almost never face charges in Mexico. They are untouchable — as was demonstrated, for example, by the high-profile case of former Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who was arrested in Los Angeles last October for allegedly accepting millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel. Mexico asked for Cienfuegos’ extradition, and the U.S. assented. Upon his return to Mexico, the official was promptly released, and Mexican authorities later exonerated him without pressing charges. Some criminal justice experts see instances like this as a sign of the system’s fundamental brokenness. Others have a different view. “The system is completely functional,” says Leopoldo Maldonado, a human rights lawyer and the Mexico and Central America director of the press freedom organization Artículo 19, commenting on the Narvarte case. “It’s doing what it always does, which is guarantee the impunity of elites.”
As with police corruption, this modus operandi is an open secret. But international opinion does play a role in shaping the state’s thinking about security: Neither the government nor the elites nor the population at large can risk scaring away tourists and international investors. The capital needs foreign visitors to feel comfortable taking Ubers, for a world-famous restaurateur to choose one of its trendy neighborhoods for her next destination eatery. And on a policy level, Mexico isn’t alone in its blinkered approach to justice: The U.S., one of the country’s main political and economic partners, often responds to the gravest cases of corruption and violence with a blind eye — or, worse, with complicity. The U.S. has directly funded security forces notorious for human rights violations, and there is evidence that it has knowingly collaborated with high-ranking officials involved in corruption networks. Mexico and its allies alike walk a careful line: Don’t ask, don’t tell; maintain a façade of security, democracy, and respect for human rights; keep violence and corruption just at bay.
All security strategy comes down to one question: which crimes should be tolerated, and which should be punished? In other words, whose lives are worth protecting, and whose can be risked? Within the cartels, leaders decide who can be arrested or killed without upsetting the balance of power. The death of a mid-level boss, for instance, matters more than that of a street dealer or a poppy farmer. In Mexico, the justice system also runs on this logic. It’s smarter to prosecute a neighborhood drug dealer than the capos or politicians who supply them. It’s easier to track down paid assassins than the person who hired them. It’s quicker to arrest the muscle than the mastermind. Security cameras alone can’t upset that calculus.
While the C5 documents existing patterns of violence, the system’s failure captures a more sweeping problem with criminality and justice in Mexico. Corruption and impunity take place far beyond the purview of street-level surveillance, sometimes among those who ostensibly work against it. “As Mexicans, we grow up with this idea that the police are corrupt,” Veronica said. “You shouldn’t report a crime because it’s really tiring; you shouldn’t report it because nothing happens. I was really conscious that, at the end of the day, our system is useless.” This feeling is widespread. In Mexico, locals refer to “the simulation” — the notion that the justice system is an elaborate charade meant to maintain the illusion of a functioning democracy. Officials pantomime carrying out investigations, pose bureaucratic obstacles to stall criminal inquiries, conveniently misplace documents, open files and close them with excuses about inconclusive evidence. Sometimes this is due to simple negligence; in other instances, it’s driven by more sinister motives. Often, it’s hard to tell the difference. Whatever the reason, it’s accepted that the system usually ends up protecting the same people — those whose real estate investments may be threatened by front-page massacres, whose tourism empires require the elimination of street vendors, whose political careers rely on squashing evidence of corruption.
Few in Mexico City would benefit from constant, random violence against the general population. But criminal justice experts agree that, without a commitment to addressing the factors that produce that violence — the entrenched and rotten power structures, the criminal networks, the extreme inequality — the cameras alone can’t disrupt anything. Under the current system, the same people tend to be caught in the middle. The disposable criminals and disposable victims are almost always poor, often young and indigenous, at times political dissidents, invariably far from the powerful who decide their fate. Those who intervene usually find themselves subject to the same violence. The C5 is but another stage on which to playact justice. While the system works for those who built it, as things are, there is little incentive to solve a hit-and-run, a kidnapping by police, or a civilian massacre — even with 30,000 cameras watching.