A new Stanford research project will examine the nature of police corruption in Mexico and make recommendations for reforming that country’s law enforcement institutions.

Beatriz Magaloni, an associate professor of political science at Stanford, will lead the research effort, thanks to a recent $4.5 million grant by the U.S. Department of State for a project to study and recommend ways to improve police accountability in Mexico. Alberto Díaz-Cayeros, a Stanford political scientist, is a co-principal investigator on the project.


Mexican police forces, like these officers in Ciudad Juarez, will be the subject of a new Stanford research project led by political scientists Beatriz Magaloni and Alberto Diaz-Cayeros. (Image credit: Frontpage / Shutterstock)

In Mexico, citizens view the police with extremely low levels of trust, according to the Stanford researchers. Now, in the face of rising public anger, the Mexican government seeks to professionalize Mexico’s law enforcement system through the kind of research and policy analysis that Magaloni’s project involves.

Magaloni said, “One of most serious difficulties regarding police forces is how to construct institutional protections to insulate the police from organized crime.”

Both Magaloni and Díaz-Cayeros are senior fellows in Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Their project, “Citizen Trust and Evidence-Based Police Accountability and Professionalization in Mexico,” builds on Magaloni’s research on Rio de Janeiro police and body-worn cameras. Based at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, the Mexican initiative will draw on scholarly expertise from across campus.

Over a three-year period, the project seeks to develop:

  • A federal component that evaluates the police reform process and efforts among federal, state and municipal police to contain organized crime, improve police effectiveness and control police corruption.
  • A regional component that examines how police function internally, how they are perceived by citizens, and how institutional climate, training and practices affect violent crime.
  • A citizen component that focuses on improving police accountability and citizen oversight by creating data repositories and sharing knowledge with civil society groups about police performance.

Once the findings are known, they will be shared with experts, police and policymakers in Mexico. Magaloni’s team will instruct officials how to use the research in an effort to bring credibility and accountability to the country’s law enforcement agencies.

Stanford students will be directly involved in all the work, which will highlight a “training the trainers” model of enacting institutional reform, according to Magaloni. She estimates that the project will involve three to four postdoctoral scholars, nine graduate and four undergraduate students over the three years.

“The Stanford students are really important in our lab,” she said. “We have incorporated graduate students from various disciplines to apply their technical knowledge to solving real-world problems. They are an integral and very important part of the team.”

Police credibility issues

Four years ago, the Mexican federal government enacted a sweeping plan to overhaul the way the nation conducts local law enforcement. But those efforts have produced “wildly uneven results across the country,” Magaloni said. While a few Mexican states have reduced murder rates and professionalized their police services, “others have failed dismally and are trapped in spirals of murder and large-scale human rights abuses,” she said.

To find evidence-based solutions, Magaloni’s project will use big data analytics, statistical modeling, geographic information systems and surveys.

“There is scant evidence about what works and what does not in law enforcement practices, as well as a poor understanding of the institutional, contextual and population dynamics that drive these variations in police efficacy and citizen trust,” said Magaloni.

She noted that citizen trust in Mexican law enforcement is directly connected to the peoples’ perception of how the police are held accountable and are trained as professionals, and whether they operate independently from the influence of organized crime.

The Stanford researchers have already analyzed data from a Mexican government survey of citizens and from psychological, drug and polygraph tests that attempt to weed out bad police officers.

“This data reveals a striking reality: how little Mexican citizens trust the police,” wrote Magaloni and Díaz-Cayeros. “Lack of police legitimacy is a serious problem for any society that attempts to control crime.”

When police adhere to the rules, the researchers wrote, they establish their credibility in the eyes of the public. Police forces should be feared by criminals – not ordinary citizens, they added.

Magaloni and Díaz-Cayeros said that Mexican authorities are frustrated by the popularity of organized drug crime rings in some places, especially rural areas, where they often outnumber the police and have established “social embeddedness and even community roots by providing employment and financial inflows to the local economies.”

Vigilante groups are another problem. “Communities would rather protect themselves than embrace police forces they do not know or trust. Vigilantism undermines the state’s authority and the rule of law,” Magaloni said.

U.S. connection, Latin America

The U.S. has a vital interest in better policing in Mexico, the researchers wrote. This is due to the security concerns in the Western hemisphere and many longstanding collaborations between the U.S. and Mexico. And so, improving Mexico’s law enforcement credibility and performance will have “big picture” results, such as strengthening the rule of law, enhancing transparency, encouraging democratic governance, and protecting human rights in that country, the authors wrote.

The Mexican project is part of a broader effort by Magaloni and her team to address police violence issues in Latin America. As part of the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED), the Global Development and Poverty Initiative (GDP) has provided nearly $1 million to Magaloni-led research projects dealing with poverty, violence and lawlessness in Latin America – “the more murderous region of the world, home to 43 of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world,” as she describes it.

With GDP funding, Magaloni launched the Stanford International Crime and Violence Lab in 2013. As with the Mexico police research, the findings from the lab are used in partnerships with NGOs, local governments and police in Latin American countries, she said.

Media Contacts

Beatriz Magaloni, Freeman Spogli Institute: (650) 724-5949, magaloni@stanford.edu

Alberto Díaz-Cayeros, Freeman Spogli Institute: (650) 725-9673, albertod@stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu