Policing for the People

Beatriz Magaloni can tell you which criminal justice reforms make communities safer in Mexico and beyond.

December 2023

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Two types of police in Mexico.

Photos: Juan José Estrada Serafín (2)

On a Friday evening in 1996, three friends went out dancing in Mexico City: a 30-year-old mother of five named Claudia Rodriguez, one of her girlfriends, and the married man her friend was seeing, Juan Cabrera. After drinking heavily, Cabrera propositioned Rodriguez. A married woman herself, she wasn’t interested. The two women decided to leave—but Cabrera wouldn’t take no for an answer.

He trailed Rodriguez and her friend as they headed home, calling them names while also trying to talk them both into joining him at a hotel room. As they approached a metro station, Cabrera took hold of Rodriguez by the arms and shoved her against a railing, ripping her blouse. She recalled him saying: “No woman has ever gotten away from me.”

Rodriguez had been robbed a few weeks earlier, and she’d started carrying a .22-caliber pistol to protect herself. As Cabrera tried to force himself on her, she pulled the gun from her purse and fired a single bullet, which struck him in the abdomen. Cabrera was hospitalized, but he later died from his injuries—leading to Rodriguez’s arrest, a murder charge, and the possibility of a 15-year prison sentence.

Beatriz Magaloni, now a political science professor at Stanford, had studied law in Mexico before moving into academia. When her sister, a prominent human rights lawyer in Mexico, called to ask whether she’d work on the case pro bono, she didn’t hesitate. “Nobody was defending her,” she recalls. The sisters began working to establish that Rodriguez had acted in self-defense and should be freed. Through analyzing the trajectory of the bullet and gathering other forensic evidence, they would show that Cabrera was in the act of assaulting Rodriguez when he was shot. “We spent almost an entire year working on it relentlessly,” Magaloni says. 

Back in the late ’90s, Mexico still relied on averiguación previa, or preliminary inquiry, where the version of events put forward by police and prosecutors would nearly always be rubber-stamped by the court. The judge who decided that Rodriguez should stand trial ruled that she could have done more to avoid Cabrera’s attack. Because she was sober and he was drunk, the judge wrote, the killing was avoidable: “It’s logical that the deceased wasn’t able to defend himself and that she took advantage of him.”

Thanks in part to the sisters’ efforts, however, the murder charge against Rodriguez was ultimately dropped. While the case was pending trial—Rodriguez was in custody for a year—Magaloni would visit her client and “observe a little bit of life in prison.” She noticed that most of the incarcerated people were poor and couldn’t afford a lawyer or a bribe to avoid petty charges. “It was really heartbreaking,” she says. “That close contact with the criminal justice system and how it works really inspired a lot of my work later on.”

In recent years, Magaloni has studied how efforts to reform Mexico’s judicial system—to improve fairness and ensure due process—produced mixed results. Even though the courts were overhauled in the 2010s under legislation passed in 2008, she found that the use of torture by authorities to elicit false confessions remained prevalent, and those most often victimized were impoverished defendants accused of theft and other petty crimes. Meanwhile, impunity rates for lawbreakers remained sky-high, with just 1.1 percent of crimes reported, investigated, and resolved, according to Mexico’s national statistics agency.

Beatriz MagaloniMagaloni (Photo: Alberto Díaz-Cayeros)

‘[T]he system as it has operated in Mexico has been incredibly brutal and authoritarian. In reality, it has punished poor people.’  

Over the course of her career, Magaloni’s field work has taken her from Mexican communities wracked by cartel violence to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The rigor of her scholarship—which connects policing, poverty, and the rule of law—has made her into one of the world’s foremost criminologists. Now, with her work receiving global recognition, she’s striving to translate academic research into positive changes in communities across Latin America. It’s a drive that traces back to her time defending Rodriguez. 

“I was preoccupied and determined to try to make a difference, especially as it relates to criminal justice, because the system as it has operated in Mexico has been incredibly brutal and authoritarian,” she says. “In reality, it has punished poor people.” 

Magaloni was raised in Mexico City, the daughter of an engineer father and a stay-at-home mother. She and her sister attended law school together at the prestigious Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, commonly known as ITAM. Their pro bono work soon opened their eyes to the way criminal proceedings worked in Mexico. As recently as the late ’90s, court reporters used manual typewriters, and Magaloni recalls how the cacophonous clanking made it difficult to follow the proceedings. Worse, she says, was the way that the defendants were treated: held behind bars in the courtroom, sometimes in a cell covered by sheets of plastic, as was the case for Rodriguez. 

“I remember in one of the hearings, we were asking questions and [Rodriguez] couldn’t hear,” Magaloni says. “So, my sister took her pen and started to, you know, just to perforate the plastic with holes so that she could hear.” 

While the case finished up, Magaloni worked on her PhD in political science at Duke University, winning a Gabriel A. Almond Award in 1998 for best dissertation in comparative politics. She focused on Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI, for its initials in Spanish), which held uninterrupted power in the country for 71 years, from 1929 to 2000. The system was known as “the perfect dictatorship” because it provided a veneer of democracy while keeping the same autocrats in power, similar to modern regimes in Venezuela, Russia, and a handful of other countries that maintain a grip while still allowing citizens to go to the polls. 

Mexico is a federation of states, just like its neighbor to the north, but it differs from the U.S. system in several ways: Its presidential elections are held every six years, and leaders are limited to a single term. Under the PRI, the outgoing president and party leadership would select their preferred successor and ensure the outcome of the election, a tradition dubbed El Dedazo, or putting down a heavy finger to tip the scales. While other political parties could win governorships and seats in Congress, the PRI dominated.

Magaloni’s dissertation dissected the political strategy of the PRI machine. She looked at how challenger parties strategized to undermine the regime, and how such upstarts were subdued through counter-messaging, including shifting the political agenda away from key issues “even at the risk of abandoning the center,” she wrote.

Didi Kuo, a fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and one of Magaloni’s colleagues, says Magaloni’s work on authoritarianism broke new ground. “It really pioneered the idea that in single-party democracies, those leaders have different strategies for retaining power,” Kuo says. “Even though you might be nominally democratic, you can wield power in ways that preclude democratic fairness.” Like other colleagues, Kuo has been struck by Magaloni’s combination of fearlessness in fieldwork and rigorousness when crunching data. “She is not afraid to go to some of the most dangerous and understudied places to understand the truth,” Kuo says. “That may sound cheesy, but she’s an incredibly sophisticated methodologist.”

Magaloni joined the faculty at UCLA as an adjunct professor in 2000, the same year that Mexico underwent a seismic political shift. That summer, the PRI lost the presidency, ushering in a new era of democracy. Magaloni was present at the National Electoral Institute as the results rolled in and Vicente Fox from the National Action Party was pronounced the country’s next leader. 

Like many other Mexicans, Magaloni was optimistic that the transition away from “the perfect dictatorship” would put the nation on a path toward a better future, rooting out corruption and improving security. “There was a lot of hope on my part at the beginning,” she says. “And then things turned really sour.” Her research has shown that torture by state security forces remains pervasive, and one of the primary tactics used to combat the cartels—targeting their leadership—has in some ways backfired, causing the country’s murder rate to spike.

After Magaloni joined Stanford in 2001 as an assistant professor, she set about studying how the end of PRI rule in Mexico had disrupted long-standing alliances between corrupt officials and organized crime groups. The cartels had previously carved up territory and smuggling routes into “plazas,” a system that allowed a few of them to maintain control. “It was easier, in a way, to contain violence—the government used to negotiate with the cartels for the division of the territories,” Magaloni says. “There was this sort of implicit pact that the government had with the cartels, but then, with the drug war, that broke apart.”

Magaloni’s research documented the spillover effects of cartel warfare on the local population, notably an increase in extortion. To do it, she and her team used a creative survey strategy. As Magaloni explained on Stanford Engineering’s The Future of Everything podcast, rather than directly asking participants whether they had been squeezed for money by the cartel—a question they would be reluctant to answer—researchers presented them with options: “‘Among these several things, how many have you done?’” 

“Then you have a control and a treatment group, and so you can compare the difference between one and the other,” she said. “And we found that there had been a systematic increase in extortion by members of the cartel against the population, and that this extortion concentrated more in places where you have competition among cartels. So, basically, what happened is that there was a fragmentation of criminal organizations in Mexico, and that, as a result, the population started to suffer.”

That fragmentation accelerated in 2006 following another election, when Felipe Calderón became president of Mexico. One of his first moves in office was to dispatch 6,500 federal troops to fight the cartels in his home state of Michoacán. By 2011, the military campaign had expanded nationwide, with more than 45,000 soldiers deployed. As Magaloni’s paper notes, Calderón prioritized the elimination of cartel kingpins. In March 2009, the Mexican government released a list of the 37 most wanted drug lords. Less than two years later, 20 had been killed or captured—twice the number taken out during the two previous administrations. 

Using national data, Magaloni and her colleagues compiled municipal-level crime statistics for the decade preceding Calderón’s presidency. To find the big picture in the sea of data, they couldn’t simply compare one municipality where a cartel boss was killed to one with no such incident, since such events are relatively rare and there are far too many variables. Instead, the researchers used “synthetic control” methods, constructing from the data “control” municipalities with homicide trends similar to those that had been “treated” by having a kingpin or lieutenants killed or captured. Their analysis accounted for factors such as the types of security forces involved and ripple effects in adjacent areas. The “beheading of criminal organizations,” they found, paradoxically led to rising homicide rates, exacerbating violence that spilled over into neighboring municipalities. 

“The arrest causes members of the criminal organization to start fighting each other for control of the leadership,” Magaloni explains. “And also it encourages other cartels to try to invade territory when they see that their rival has been weakened. There is a vacuum that these criminal organizations leave and that the state is not able to fill, because police in Mexico are infamously inefficient and they are also very corrupt.”

In 2010, Magaloni founded the Poverty, Violence, and Governance Lab within the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at FSI, and her research has looked at the long-term effects of the Calderón era.

While Calderón deployed the military to combat the cartels, in 2008 Mexico’s Congress approved constitutional reforms to change the court system and address some of the issues Magaloni encountered in Rodriguez’s case. Like other Latin American nations based on the Spanish colonialist legal system, Mexico still used an inquisitorial process, in which the court is actively involved in investigating the facts of a case; it’s not a neutral arbiter of justice. The 2008 reforms introduced oral trials, gave judges more independence and oversight, and eliminated the in-court caging of defendants. 

But as Magaloni’s work has shown, the reforms had unintended consequences. While there are now mechanisms for due process, she found evidence to show an increase in the use of torture by authorities and a continued reliance on the fabrication of evidence. In a paper published in American Political Science Review in 2020, Magaloni and postdoctoral researcher Luis Rodriguez wrote that their findings paint “a grim picture of the survival of authoritarian policing practices in democracies.” Police and prosecutors, Magaloni says, “never invested in developing the capacity to investigate.”

Magaloni accepting the Stockholm Prize in Criminology 2023. WITH HONORS: Queen Silvia of Sweden with Magaloni (Photo: Karl Peterson/The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention)

After analyzing surveys of nearly 60,000 prisoners compiled by the national statistics agency, Magaloni and her colleagues grouped prisoners’ experiences with torture into two buckets. One was brute force, which included incidents of beatings with punches, kicks, or a blunt instrument. The other was institutionalized torture, which “requires a dedicated space, equipment, or training to be carried out effectively.” The latter category included incidents in which someone was crushed with a heavy object, electrocuted, waterboarded, burned, or stabbed. The results showed what she calls “a massive increase” in institutionalized police brutality during the Calderón era, especially in cases where the military was involved in arrests. Jurisdictions that embraced due process reforms, however, saw torture by authorities decline in the long run.

Earl Anthony Wayne, MA ’73, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2011 to 2015, recalls how the 2008 reforms “got terribly bogged down in rivalries between the states and the federal government and opposition from the judges and the prosecutors and others who were already in the system and didn’t want to change it.” Under Calderón, Wayne says, Mexico and the United States cooperated broadly on security issues, including through an agreement known as the Merida Initiative, which provided $3.3 billion in security aid from 2008 to 2021. A portion of that money has gone toward reforming Mexico’s justice system. “We tried to train people on how to collect evidence, how to present that evidence in a way that could be used in court,” Wayne says. “We trained a lot of forensic experts, and we still do that today. There were elements of progress, but it was just a massive task.”

Under Calderón, there were also concerns about corruption. Wayne was among the witnesses called by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn to testify against Calderón’s top security official, who was convicted of taking massive cartel bribes and now faces life in prison. 

Despite the problems with drug war militarization identified by Magaloni and others, it has largely remained the status quo. Under the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the government is more reliant than ever on the military to take on the cartels. “Today I believe there are more human rights abuses,” Magaloni says. “There is more violence.” Although Mexico saw a slight drop in homicides in 2022, the total number of killings topped 30,000 for the fifth consecutive year. The murder rate remains more than double what it was in 2008, before the military was deployed to fight the cartels.

But Magaloni doesn’t believe hope is lost. She points to the northern city of Monterrey, where “little by little there has been professionalization of the police,” as one example of how change can be achieved at the local level. But it requires investment, she says, in the form of better pay and training. “Without local police who work alongside communities,” she says, “I don’t see how we can ever solve the problem of violence.”

Magaloni’s spouse, Alberto Díaz-Cayeros, joined the Freeman Spogli Institute in 2013 as a senior fellow, studying federalism, poverty, and violence in Latin America, and the couple have three children together. He describes Magaloni’s approach as “mixed method,” combining “hard core” methodological research and sophisticated statistical analyses with the relevant field work to put the findings in context. He remembers a one-year span—in 2016 or 2017—in which she traveled to Brazil 10 times for research.

 ‘Without local police who work alongside communities,  I don’t see how we can ever solve the problem of violence.’  

Magaloni has demonstrated that new approaches and technologies can have a huge impact. In Rio de Janeiro, she helped persuade police to try an experiment wearing body cameras. Although the officers were reluctant at first, they ultimately agreed to participate—and the results were clear: Both the police who wore body cameras and the citizens they encountered were less likely to engage in violence. Officer-involved shootings and other violent incidents declined by 40 percent.

“She demonstrates with creative empirical techniques how specific police reforms and rule of law and governance practices can improve the lives of common citizens,” says Erik Jensen, director of the Rule of Law program and a lecturer at Stanford Law School. “And then she goes a step further to connect her research to programmatic interventions.”

Last fall, Magaloni received the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, one of the world’s most prestigious academic awards in the social sciences. Her research, the award committee found, had produced “important evidence that police organizations are vulnerable to populist demands for harsh police methods that violate the rule of law and which, in the long run, increase violence in society.”

During her acceptance speech at the award ceremony in Sweden, Magaloni recalled the Rodriguez case as a turning point in her life. “The experience really made me understand how the system works,” she said. “How politicized it was, how little independence judges had in Mexico.” She’s come a long way since taking Rodriguez’s case, and so has reform in Mexico, but in some ways, she still sees history repeating itself. 

“There is this tension, always, with respect to criminal justice,” she says. “On the one hand, there is this attempt to reform, but on the other, there is this popular support for harsh punishment, especially when people are afraid of crime.” 

Keegan Hamilton is the criminal justice editor at the Los Angeles Times and previously reported on organized crime in Latin America as a correspondent for Vice News. Email him at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu .

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