It’s been some years since Laura stopped counting dead people. “We are oblivious to them now,” she says. It’s just another body.
Laura is a criminal investigator with the Nuevo León state Homicide Division, joining straight out of the academy. Her mission, as you might expect, is to gather evidence that would solve the crimes and lead to the arrest of a perpetrator. She is a detective.
“But I’ve seen five homicides in a single day and investigations take time, so some get left behind.”
She was never trained how to investigate a murder. She wasn’t required to have a certain amount of experience or complete any special courses, as required in the United States and Canada. “Being appointed is all it takes, and that’s what happened to me,” she admits.
This detective’s routine is not the same as that of homicide officers in many other countries either.
She spends a significant part of her week drafting “memos” requesting fuel or replacement parts for her police car or searching for soldiers who might sell her ammunition left over from a seizure. She also goes to Office Depot to buy sheaves of paper, pens or carbon paper needed to draft reports, or maybe toner cartridges for the printer. “We don’t always have money to buy them, so sometimes we also go begging for toner cartridges in order to print documents, or we just shake the cartridge in hopes of getting something.”
And in the midst of this, she tries to manage the cases stacking up as well as the new homicides assigned to her.
“(The cases) are neither filed, nor closed, but there is almost not follow-up either. Just the report of the facts and the identification of the corpse ... and that’s about as far as we get,” Laura confesses.
It’s no surprise that solving a murder in Mexico is the exception and not the rule. As happens in 26 other states, in Laura’s home state of Nuevo León, 9 of 10 crimes go unpunished.
Laura (an alias to protect her identity) says she doesn’t remember the each of the homicides that have been assigned to her that were left unsolved. A look at the stats allow for an estimate: According to official reports, there were 6,237 unsolved homicides in Nuevo Leon between 2010 and 2016 and there are 98 criminal investigators in the Homicides Department. That suggests each detective would be in charge of investigating roughly 64 homicides.
Nuevo León may consider itself lucky. In Guerrero, using the same method, each of the homicide detectives would be running more than 1,000 investigations today.
The national average is 102 unsolved crimes for each criminal investigator.
Impunity index: 0
Cases with convictions: 0
Cases without a verdict: 0
Victims for every 100,000 inhabitants: 0
Cases with convictions for every 100,000 inhabitants: 0
Cases without a verdict for every 100,000 inhabitants: 0
Just from 2010 to 2016, 154,557 people were murdered in Mexico and in 94.8% of those cases there is no suspect facing charges, according to the information from the National Statistics and Geography Institute (INEGI, for its acronym in Spanish).
On a per state level, in 27 of 32 states the number of cases that do no end up with a sentencing is over 90 percent.
The only states that perform “better” are: Jalisco with 88.9% unsolved cases, Querétaro with 84.4%, Tabasco at 79.5%, Mexico City at 76.5%, Hidalgo at 60.6% and Yucatán at 56.6%.
This means our country has a rate of 5 convictions for every 100 homicide cases, while in the United States the average rate of conviction is 24 out of every 100 cases. In Asia there are 48 out of 100 and in Europe 81 out of 100, according to data from the UNO.
And these numbers are not justified by a lack of funding. In Mexico, the budget for internal security has increased,on average, 2 billion pesos each year.
From 2008 to 2015, it rose from 27,000 pesos per annum to 43 billion pesos.
Interviews of more than 60 officers from 10 states and of victims and prosecutors, as well as a review of the equipment available to the experts, the tools available to police, an examination of criminal procedures, files and recommendations from the Human Rights Commission reveal the reasons for these levels of impunity.
There are places, for example, that lack funding and that don’t have forensic ambulances to transport bodies, nor do they have proper morgues or laboratories to analyze them. Other places do actually receive money, but it is wasted on equipment that will never be used.
Training for policemen and agents is also practically non-existent. In almost 95% of the country’s municipalities, the police forces are not trained in the basics such as securing and preserving crime scenes, according to information from INEGI.
And there are other problems: prosecutors and policemen told Animal Político that there is not a mandatory standardized protocol that specifies how to investigate a murder while half of the states do not have specialized departments trained in handling murder investigations.
Even worse: there are some cases that are actually investigated, but getting to the truth is not the goal. Instead what is more important is simply to arrest somebody, even if they are not guilty. A “positive outcome” is measured by someone being arrested and thus innocent people are sent to jail.
In Mexico, the procedure for investigating a homicide involves regular police officers, criminal investigators and detective, legal experts and agents from the prosecutor’s office. In the first part of our report, we only reviewed the total number of agents involved, their salaries and the training each of them received.
The regular police officers – uniformed police officers – are usually the first to arrive at a crime scene and they are supposed to secure and preserve it. The criminal investigators or detectives, formerly known as “judiciales,” are in charge of searching for evidence and identifying suspects. The legal experts are in charge of handling and analyzing the evidence.
And the homicide detectives from the prosecutor’s office (or district attorneys’ offices) coordinate the investigation.
Each of these officials are extremely overworked.
As for the state district attorneys, official data shows that dividing the unsolved murders from 2010 to 2016 by the total number of prosecutors in the country, comes out to an average of 227 cases for each prosecutor. Taking into account that each agent from a public prosecutor’s office solves only 1.8 cases a year (we calculated this number by comparing the data from INEGI with the official security information of each state), we would need 124 years to catch up.
But that’s only a national average.
In Guerrero, one of the states with the highest homicide rates, each agent would have an average of 906 cases pending.
In Colima, the state with the highest number of unsolved homicides (98.8%), each officer would have a workload of 148 cases pending. And in Colima the rate of adjudication is worse than it is in Guerrero, so extrapolating that average shows that it would take them 598 years to solve only the homicides that took place from 2010 to 2016.
Another distressing national average: Each district attorney handling homicide cases in Mexico has fewer than two criminal investigators to carry out the investigation.
Would those district attorneys solve cases faster by having more detectives? Laura says yes, considering that there are 1,600 investigators in Nuevo León but fewer than 100 are assigned to homicide cases. And this, says Laura, is without taking into account those agents who are simply assigned as bodyguards and chauffeurs for top officials.
Samuel Castillejos, a former district attorney of Oaxaca, says that in his state they have had up to 300 unexecuted warrants for murder cases because there were simply no agents available to serve them.
The former deputy attorney general of Mexico City, Luis Genaro Vázquez, points out another problem: unjustified rotation of personnel despite significant manpower shortages. “Prosecutors and commanders with lots of experience are rotated due to the whim of high command.”
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How much do the people responsible for solving murders earn? Calculating the information available on public information websites, agents of the public prosecutor’s office earn an average monthly salary of 22,000 pesos. The lowest wages are in Tabasco – 13,000 pesos – and the highest is Nuevo Leon – 54,000 pesos. And this is before taxes.
In the 20 states where information is publicly available, criminal investigators earn an average 13,963 pesos per month. The lowest is again Tabasco, where their monthly wage is 6,700 pesos, while the highest is Sonora – 27,000 pesos.
Compared to other countries, our detectives are very poorly paid. In Brazil, for example, they earn more than twice what Mexican detectives earn (2,285 dollars a month compared to the 979 dollars a month earned here). In Costa Rica, detectives’ monthly wages are almost triple (2,591 dollars) while in the United States, they earn an average of 8,650 dollars a month. That is nine times what a Mexican detective earns.
*2017-2018 World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index. It is a series of indicators on administration and delivery of justice on a national level.
**The ratio is calculated based on 100,000 habitants. Homicide ratio for 2017.
*Expressed in dollars PPP (Purchasing Power Parity), according to the World Bank data.
Information obtained from the National Census of Municipal and Regional Governments, 2017. We must include the 16 Mexico City boroughs, a “state” that has no community-based policing, but does have a centralized police force with powers and authority of first responder.
And equally as important, Laura explains that even though the monthly salary of police officers in Nuevo León —21,000 pesos in ammunition and fuel for their vehicles.
State of Mexico District Attorney Gutiérrez González calculates that many of his co-workers spend up to half their salary on transportation (some of them have commutes of up to 3 hours) or to gas up their official vehicles or to pay for other materials needed in the office.
So while the situation in district attorneys’ offices is dire, the beat cop has it even worse.
They do not investigate murders, but they do play a key role in solving crimes. According to the National Criminal Code, they must secure and preserve a crime scene in order to prevent evidence form being lost or compromised. They are most often the first authority to intervene.
Police forces are at only half the necessary capacity. According to the report Ideal Model of Police Functions, Mexico should have 1.8 policemen for every 100,000 inhabitants in order to be at accepted international standards. There are barely 0.8 officers per 100,000 inhabitants today.
Nationally, Mexico has 8 police officers available to respond to each homicide and to secure and preserve the crime scene, but there are wide variances: In Yucatán — the state with the least impunity — there are 81 policemen available for each homicide, while in Colima and Guerrero there are only 2.
Bernardo León Olea, head of the Morelia state police, says that recruiting new policemen is no easy task and one of the key reasons is the low wages. INEGI data shows that 40% of policemen earn between 5,000 and 10,000 pesos per month.
In some states, it is even lower than that. Actually, 1 of every 5 municipal policemen in the country earns less than 5,000 pesos a month. In Oaxaca, there are municipalities where agents earn only 2,500 pesos bimonthly (or 1,250 pesos per month), claims Saíd Villalobos, an agent with the public prosecutor’s office in Oaxaca.
It gets worse: There are 4,900 officers recognized as municipal policemen that do not even receive a fixed salary.
Low wages are not compensated by good benefits either. The Police Development Index 2017 reveals that there are 13 states in the country where local policemen are not provided with the minimum benefits mandated by law.
What about training? The Interior Secretariat reported that all police officers attended a 40-hour workshop on how to secure and preserve a crime scene, but INEGI data reveals that only 135 of the nation’s 2,463 municipalities have officers on staff with adequate skills to “properly secure and preserve a crime scene and the integrity of evidence, traces or remnants of a crime ."
A judge in Nuevo León told Animal Político that of the cases she has handled in the past two years, 70% fell apart in the early stages of the investigation — they did not even earn a court hearing — due to mistakes made at the crime scene because it was not properly secured and preserved.
Enrique Inzunza Cázares, presiding judge of the Superior Court of Sinaloa, confirms that the deficiency in training of local police forces impacts cases. “They have not mastered basic knowledge and this has serious consequences: Evidence gathered at the crime scene is declared inadmissible and can’t be presented in court. This is precisely the problem: the first responder does not know how to behave according to legally established standards and the case is blown right from the beginning.”
The two employees of the El Triunfo funeral home wait outside the cordoned off area next to a bar where its manager, Avelina García, was murdered. Eyewitnesses reported that a man entered the bar and shot her several times without saying anything, then escaped on a motorcycle.
The locals gather upon hearing of yet another murder, the 10th in less than two weeks in Tuxtepec. The funeral home employees wait, demonstrating neither special interest nor surprise. One is occupied by his mobile phone and the other talks to a police officer about the baseball game and the weather.
“What are you doing here?” the employee playing on his phone is asked after standing idly for an hour.
“I am waiting for the forensic experts to arrive and search the place so we can take the body,” he says, still looking at his mobile phone.
“Isn’t removing the body the job of ambulance medics?”
The employee looks up from his mobile phone, smiles and answers:
“Nah... the funeral homes do that here. The government can’t manage the removal of the bodies …”
In investigating a murder, the role of legal experts is key, explains Héctor Hawley, a crime scene specialist from Ciudad Juárez. “Our job consists of determining the scientific, historic truth of an event. It is about searching for the evidentiary relationship between the crime scene, the perpetrator and the victim.”
The dilemma is that there are not enough forensic scientists.
Tuxtepec, the second most populous city in Oaxaca, is a good example. The body of Mrs. Avelina García lay on the floor for two hours and nothing could be done, because there are only two criminalistics experts in the city and one of them actually has a degree in architecture. They were both dealing with another emergency elsewhere.
In addition, the body should have been removed by a field medicine specialist, an expert in analyzing its position and characteristics. But there are none in Tuxtepec. So, the removal of the body is done by the employees of the El Triunfo funeral home, who do not wear special suits or boots to prevent the scene from being contaminated. They also do not have body bags to preserve the evidence on the body or special gear to protect themselves.
“We don’t have any of that material,” one of the employees explains. “We place regular plastic bags on the floor of the van. Not so much for safety reasons, but to prevent it from getting dirty, because cleaning it afterwards can be tricky.”
The body of Avelina García was taken to the municipal cemetery, because there is no morgue in Tuxtepec for performing an autopsy.
“Here there are only two criminalistics experts, two forensic doctors and two psychologists,” says Villalobos, the local criminal investigator. “It’s impossible to do the work properly.”
In Veracruz, the third most populated state, the government reported to INEGI that there are 250 specialists, without providing any further specifics. One of them, who spoke anonymously, claims that there are cities where there are no more than three “experts.”
“The three of them have to perform every specialization: removing the body, serving as criminalist, taking photographs, driving the ambulance and acting as stretcher-bearer. And if they have to obtain fingerprints, we also play dactyloscopist... This all affects the investigation. We are still gathering evidence from one homicide when another one is reported,” he lamented.
There is a dangerous lack of specialists throughout the country. In Guadalajara, Enrique Ballesteros, head of Field Criminalistics at the Forensic Sciences Institute of Jalisco, acknowledges that crime has “swamped us”; its experts only take care of cases in the capital. In the rest of the state, they have been forced to train local policeman to do the job, he says.
Sergio Palacios, the forensic ballistics coordinator in Guadalajara, claims that they need “twice as many people.”
Carlos Morales, a ballistics expert in Nayarit, says that sometimes they have to analyze more than 300 ballistic samples in a week and there is just not enough equipment. Carlos is says he is now more content, because he finally has a workmate permanently on call, ensuring that Carlos can take weekends off.
Carlos’ workmate, Mercedes Macías, is also an expert in Nayarit, but her specialty is chemistry. She says that in 24 years on the job, she has never had such a heavy workload as she does now, but that has not been accompanied by a wage hike. She says she earns 10,400 pesos a month, and none of the bonuses she is owed have been paid.
INEGI data confirms that 1 of every 3 experts in Mexico receives a salary similar to Mercedes, 10,000 to 15,000 pesos a month, before taxes. Once again, there is a significant contrast: a comparable specialist in Costa Rica earns 3,565 dollars a month (compared to 1,691 dollars in Mexico), or roughly twice as much. In Brazil, they earn on average 4,853 dollars a month, almost triple, while in the United States, they earn 6,888 dollars, four times as much.
Ricardo Realivazquez Domínguez – the Public Security Secretary for Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua – says local municipal police created a “Scene Attention Unit” and its agents were trained to collect evidence, given the scarcity of experts there.
We hear the same stories in one state after another. “We don’t have enough experts, because the ones we have are busy investigating one murder and we have to wait for him to return,” says Gabriel Gutiérrez, a criminal investigator in the State of Mexico district attorney’s office. “Or the ballistics expert, the most commonly needed experts in murder cases, is out on another case. In Texcoco, we have 2 and there are another 2 in Neza and that is all we have to cover the entire eastern side of the state. That’s not nearly enough.”
Two specialists in Mexico City revealed that sometimes their work is carried out by investigators from police forces who have no training for evidence gathering or examination.
“Police detectives are assigned and they obviously are not trained to do the job of a field criminalist,” said one of the specialists. “And considering that the criminalist often must take on the role of the field doctor, these policemen end up performing all these tasks without knowing anything about them.”
According to official reports, there are even worse examples. While Mexico City has an average of 9 new homicides a year for every criminalistics expert and 23 new cases for every forensic chemist, in Guerrero the average is 51 homicides for every criminalist and 115 cases for every forensic chemist.
And even if the nation’s capital has an average of one forensic pathologist for every 23 new homicides a year, in Morelos there are 36 new cases for every forensic pathologist and in Puebla there are 116. Some states, such as Oaxaca, simply declined to disclose the number of forensic experts they have on staff.
“My department does not have a forensic pathologist, nor a forensic chemist. It also does not have facilities for taking care of an injured woman,” says the State of Mexico’s Gutiérrez. “We lack absolutely everything. Here, in my department, I am a public prosecutor’s agent and the one who picks up the trash. There simply is nobody else besides me.”