Flawed investigations, camera limitations plague Mexico City’s surveillance system
In the last decade, Mexico City has installed the largest video surveillance system in the Americas, altering the way criminal investigations are conducted for better or worse. One Presidential candidates’ future plans for the system include the introduction of more biometrics.
Over the past two decades, the city’s governments have made video surveillance central to policing in an attempt to combat violent crime caused by the drug war.
In 2009, Mexico City’s administration installed the first 8,000 security cameras in the system, an investment totalling over US$400 million. By 2012, 13,000 cameras were installed, and in 2018, the city had installed 21,000 cameras, according to ethnographic researcher Esteban Salmón in an essay in anthropology publication Sapiens.
The past five years saw an exponential rise in the number of surveillance cameras. Today, there are over 64,000 surveillance cameras across the nation’s capital. By the end of 2024, the government plans to have at least 80,000 cameras installed.
Additionally, 13,000 panic buttons have been installed. A central command and control center along with seven regional dispatch centers with humans monitoring cameras oversee 1,627 neighborhoods and handle over 5,000 emergency calls a day.
Over the past four years, the city has improved the quality of color video footage and enhanced storage capacity for up to 40 days. While prosecutors refer to footage as “factual” and absolute, Salmón found that video evidence captured was often still subject to interpretation.
He saw that technical malfunctions such as cameras with broken recordings that skip the timeframe when a crime was supposedly committed, obstructed views of the crime, and license plate reader errors, “impacted the outcomes of criminal cases.”
The system has resulted in a number of false arrests. One case caught police officers on video fabricating evidence in an arrest, resulting in a criminal investigation against the officers themselves. Officers have also been filmed tampering with video evidence, destroying cameras, and stealing storage drives.
Critics say surveillance systems in public spaces focus on low-level street crimes, and some argue that the investment into surveillance targets certain social groups while minimizing funding to fight crimes in private spaces such as domestic violence and white-collar crime.
Video evidence is typically only one element of a criminal case, paired with interviews, forensic reports, and material evidence. The footage also does not have sound. Cameras can’t capture faces with precision, and Salmón saw that suspects were usually presented in court wearing the clothes they wore when they allegedly committed the crime.
Despite these serious shortcomings, Mexico continues to expand on surveillance. Other Mexican cities such as Puebla, Guadalajara, and Monterrey have installed their own surveillance systems. A candidate for the 2024 presidential election. Marcello Ebrard, has promised to install cameras with facial recognition, gun detection, license plate reading, and gait recognition throughout the country.