How Mexico's "Caso Giovanni" Sparked a Public Security Reckoning

How Mexico's "Caso Giovanni" Sparked a Public Security Reckoning

. 10 min read

On May 4, police in Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos, a small town outside Guadalajara, Mexico, arrested Giovanni López, a 30-year-old bricklayer. They beat and tortured him for three hours. The next day, his family arrived at the hospital to find his dead body. Jalisco’s Human Rights Commission concluded that “all the blows and lesions he incurred were of a conscious and disproportionate manner, which led to his death ... By hitting him on repeated occasions, the police tortured him, violating his right to personal integrity.”

The mayor offered the family 200,000 Mexican pesos to keep quiet. When they initially refused, the mayor threatened them with the same fate as Giovanni, forcing them to remain silent. After George Floyd died in Minnesota, Giovanni’s brother, Cristian, went to the media with a video of his brother’s arrest on June 3, heartened by the global response to Floyd’s death. The next day, massive protests broke out across Mexico.

Unfortunately, el caso Giovanni, as Mexicans have taken to calling the case, does not exist within a vacuum. It is the latest in a string of police brutality incidents in Mexico. Partly because of the influence of police reform movements in the United States, police reform has again entered the national conversation in Mexico. But Mexico is not the United States, and it must adopt Mexican solutions to its intractable problems of police corruption, abuse, and inefficiency. In that vein, it should redouble its efforts to professionalize its often under-resourced police forces and invest more into independent accountability bodies.

“It Could Have Been in Any State or Any Time of Year”

Statistics collected by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography paint a disturbing picture of police abuse in Mexico. According to its report on police abuses, 64 percent of those arrested between 2010 and 2016 reported some sort of physical aggression during their arrest, with 35 percent reporting choking or asphyxiation. Furthermore, a United Nations report noted that 2,751 people died of violent causes in Mexican prisons between 2013 and 2018, implying a failure to protect inmates from violence at best and downright police brutality at worst. Finally, according to the National Human Rights Commission, citizens lodged 13,262 reports of arbitrary arrests between 2001 and 2017.

However, these statistics do not paint the entire picture of Mexican police abuse. In 2011, federal police extorted money from a Monterrey taxi driver on two occasions, and the third time they encountered him, they tortured him and forced him to confess to being a member of the Zetas cartel. The officers have still not been brought to justice. In 2017, the police arrested Alejandro C.M. (whose last name was not released) one night because he looked suspicious. In the scuffle that ensued, Alejandro ended up dead. “The place and date are the least important part of the story,” investigative journalism site Animal Político wrote. “It could have been in any state or any time of year.”

Graffiti in Montevideo in solidarity with the 43 kidnapped students. Photo by Sortica, CC-SA-4.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons. 

Police abuses committed in collusion with the cartels are another matter. In 2016, five students disappeared in the state of Veracruz on the orders of cartel leader Francisco Navarrete Serna, with the help of state police. But the most famous incident occurred on September 26, 2014, when police stopped a bus of 43 students from a teacher training college in Ayotzinapa heading to a protest in Mexico City and forced the students into police vans; the students were never seen again. Notably, multiple municipal police agencies colluded in the forced disappearance, and federal police agencies did nothing in the attack’s immediate aftermath. While investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez suspects that the police worked with a local gang to reclaim a package of heroin hidden in the bus, no conclusive proof has emerged. In all, the Ayotzinapa case demonstrates the consequences of cartel-police collusion, and the state’s inability to establish even basic facts about the case shows its ineffectiveness in solving crime, much less preventing it.

Officers that do not work with the cartels are afraid to fight them, and for good reason. More than 215 police officers have been killed in 2020 as of May, and that number has certainly grown since then. In June 2020, the Jalisco Cartel attempted to kill Mexico City’s police chief in broad daylight, a testament to both the cartels’ feeling of impunity and the ineffectiveness of the police. Due to their lack of resources, police officers often fail to pursue investigations effectively; in 2008, researchers estimated that only 22 percent of crimes committed in Mexico were reported to the police. Nearly 32 percent of those cases did not even have a police report attached to them. Overall, Mexican police are often underpaid, underequipped, and undertrained.

Furthermore, tales of police corruption abound. Motorists complain about the feared “mordida,” or bite, in which police officers invent traffic offenses in order to extort a bribe from the motorist. Meanwhile, high-ranking officials within Mexico City’s police force often solicit bribes from lower-ranking officers in return for promotions or cushy assignments. As a result, the top officers are not necessarily the most qualified or most competent. Finally, the cartels often pay off entire police forces, sometimes with bribes totaling two or three times their official salary.

“Giovanni Didn’t Die, the State Killed Him”

While corruption, abuse, and inefficiency appear to be ingrained in Mexican police culture, the global anti-police brutality protests following George Floyd’s death likely reassured protestors that demonstrations have the potential to spark a broader conversation or even prompt policy changes. As a result, major protests occurred throughout Jalisco on June 4, the day after Giovanni’s brother went to the press and one month after Giovanni’s arrest. “Giovanni didn’t die, the state killed him,” many signs read. Violence broke out, and police arrested at least 26 protestors on the first day.

Protests lasted for several consecutive days and spread to other cities in Mexico, including Mexico City. There, police violently assaulted a 16-year-old protestor, and public outrage forced Mexico City authorities to arrest the two police officers involved. In Jalisco, the state governor, Enrique Alfaro, put the three officers responsible for Giovanni’s death in prison and released those arrested in demonstrations over the preceding days.

Like the George Floyd case, the caso Giovanni also prompted discussion in Mexico about other victims of police brutality. When a video of Yair Lopez (no relation) being choked to death during his arrest in Tijuana emerged, it prompted an investigation into the circumstances of his death and motivated more protests across the nation. Likewise, protests spread to Veracruz in response to the May killing of Carlos Andrés Navarro at the hands of police.

Police motorcycles in during June 4 protests in Guadalajara. Photo by Mtenaespinoza, CC-BY-SA-4.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons. 

In the political arena, Giovanni’s death exacerbated the battle between Mexico’s governors and its president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) over the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before Giovanni’s death, AMLO had largely proven unwilling to announce strict coronavirus-related lockdowns, leading state governments to pick up the slack with measures to reduce its spread, including limitations on social gatherings and mandatory mask wearing. Indeed, under Alfaro’s leadership, Jalisco was one of the first states to shut down, sparking criticism from AMLO. “Pandemics won’t do anything to us,” he scoffed. Even as the pandemic has progressed, AMLO has argued for lifting restrictions. Since Alfaro heads an opposition coalition of eight governors all taking aim at AMLO’s party, this battle over COVID-19 restrictions seems to presage congressional elections scheduled for 2021.

The dispute over the causes of Giovanni’s arrest has echoed along these battle lines. While the Jalisco state government has claimed that the police arrested him for aggression against the police, the federal government has fiercely insisted that he was arrested for not wearing a mask. Indeed, the country’s Ministry of the Interior has argued that Giovanni’s arrest is yet another example of the abuse of power that coronavirus-related restrictions have enabled, pointing to 412 other arrests for violations of Jalisco state quarantine ordinances. “These measures have a disproportionate effect on those historically discriminated against or excluded,” the Ministry wrote, later arguing that Alfaro has intruded on the federal government’s responsibilities by taking a stricter stance on the virus. Although AMLO himself has taken the high road publicly, it seems his government has used the murder to make a broader point against coronavirus restrictions.

Alfaro struck back. “Behind everything that’s happening in this case in Jalisco, there are powerful interests constructed from Mexico City, from the hallways of power, that search to damage Jalisco,” the governor said, accusing the president and his party of fomenting the protests for political gain. “I have no interest in fighting with any governor,” AMLO responded, accusing Alfaro of manufacturing a political controversy. Nonetheless, a political controversy certainly exists, and it seems like AMLO has come out ahead: most of the negative press surrounding Giovanni’s death has criticized Jalisco’s handling of the murder, the protests, and the investigation, which has still not produced a clear rendering of Giovanni’s arrest. Interestingly, Ayotzinapa has come up several times during the potshots: Alfaro claimed that he avoided another Ayotzinapa by arresting the three officers responsible, while his political party, Movimiento Ciudadano, accused Morena, AMLO’s political party, of creating the impression of a new Ayotzinapa.

The State of Police Reform

In addition to the immediate debate over COVID-19 restrictions, Giovanni’s death has rekindled a larger public conversation about police reform in Mexico. For instance, Mexico City-based newspaper La Reforma identified several problems that contributed to the poor initial response to Giovanni’s death. In particular, the newspaper called out the Jalisco public prosecutor’s office for making little progress in investigating Giovanni’s death, the police for lacking a nonviolent strategy for confronting protests, and the National Guard for not arriving on the scene until after protests had dispersed.

Unlike in the United States, where the systemic racism that produced Floyd’s death has prompted calls for the wholesale abolition of police forces or major reductions in their budgets, the conversation in Mexico has largely focused on two major solutions: reforming the complicated structure of municipal, state, and federal police forces, and increasing accountability within the various police forces. After the Ayotzinapa mass kidnapping, then-President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed several major reforms to Mexico’s police system: replacing the country’s 1,800 municipal police forces with state police forces, enabling the central government to dissolve any municipality captured by cartels, boosting the country’s federal security forces, and creating a national emergency hotline. However, critics questioned the value of an increased federal presence, as federal police are not necessarily less corrupt or more effective than local forces, and they also noted that a national emergency hotline would not automatically increase trust in police officers.

AMLO’s administration has taken a slightly different tack. Several days after his inauguration, AMLO announced that the country would combine federal police and military police units into a new force, the National Guard, with a corresponding recruiting campaign to boot. He also gave the army the power to intervene in 12 functions previously limited to the police, such as arresting suspects, thus deepening the militarization of policing. Reactions were strongly negative. Several hundred federal police barricaded themselves in the police headquarters in Mexico City, complaining that military commanders do not understand the realities of civilian policing. Indeed, increasing military involvement in police work has led to police brutality in other countries in Latin America, such as Brazil. Beyond that, many worry that the state should allocate scarce resources towards buttressing police forces rather than changing institutions every six years when a new president comes around.

Given these concerns, reforms at the state and local level offer a more viable path towards police reform in Mexico. In the cities of Morelia and Chihuahua, municipal police reforms focused on community policing. The Morelia police force hired more female officers to respond to domestic violence complaints, spent more time conducting community outreach efforts, and relied more on social workers to mediate low-level disputes. In Chihuahua, the local police force reversed a longstanding policy that rotated police officers frequently to reduce corruption. It reasoned that continuity in the officers present in a particular neighborhood would allow the officers to develop a rapport with the community while giving the community more leverage to combat corruption and abuse in their assigned officers. Meanwhile, the state of Nuevo León made the distinction between state-level and municipal-level police clearer by dissolving its previous state police force and replacing it with a new police force, the Fuerza Civil. That body would focus on fighting cartel violence at the state level, leaving municipal police forces to handle “common crime policing” and community policing.

A Mexico City police car. Photo by Jmagno1988, CC-BY-SA-4.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons. 

The reforms in Morelia, Chihuahua, and Nuevo León all had one thing in common: they aimed to further professionalize the police force by improving training, equipment, and salaries. This professionalization would make the police more effective against crime and reduce the incentives for corruption, since higher salaries mean that police officers do not need to take cartel money to make ends meet. Other state and local governments, however, lack the political will or funds to implement what has been the academic and policy consensus for decades, noted Daniel Sabet, a Georgetown University professor who studies police reform in Mexico.

Beyond actually implementing police professionalization, Mexico should also create stronger independent bodies to hold police accountable. It could do so by strengthening its National Human Rights Commission, which currently does not have the power to make police forces adopt its recommendations, or the resources to conduct robust investigations. Citizen observatory bodies and NGOs can also play a part in holding police forces accountable. If anything, the recent protests surrounding Giovanni López’s death have demonstrated that public scrutiny can force change in established bodies.

In that sense, Mexico resembles the United States. Just as George Floyd’s death catalyzed a wave of public outrage over police brutality in the United States, Giovanni López’s death catalyzed public outrage over police brutality in Mexico. It is now up to both governments to make sure these deaths were not in vain.