Global Observer

Mexico City security: 'Big Brother' is watching

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MEXICO CITY -- Some 13,000 video cameras capture this city's every move, making the Mexican capital one of the most surveilled cities in the world.

MEXICO CITY -- Thirteen thousand video cameras capture this city's every move, making Mexico City one of the most surveilled cities in the world.

Three years into a public security initiative called "Safe City," Mexico City now boasts a network of 8,000 surveillance cameras on streets and 5,000 more in the subway. In September, police unveiled a new command and control center—the sixth and most specialized to date—to crunch the data the cameras provide and make it useful to cops in action.

All the surveillance has generated successes in safety, police say: reducing once-dismal response times, improving public security, bolstering investigations and curbing police corruption.

There is a lot to keep an eye on here.

The Mexico City metropolitan area is home to more than 20 million people, nearly a fifth of the country's population. The city also employs the largest police force in Latin America with about 82,000 cops divided into those who patrol neighborhoods, direct traffic, protect banks and serve in special rescue and tactical teams.

The new brain center, known as "C4" for "command, control, communications and computation," and five other "C2" centers, rely on specially trained dispatchers who analyze and act on a video system that handles 13,000 images per second.

Information is processed based on "analysis, statistics and intelligence," said Fausto Lugo García, who heads up C4. Dispatchers are directed to watch certain cameras in high-risk areas at specified times; they then communicate directly with police on the street when they see suspicious activity, witness a crime taking place or field an emergency call.

High-impact crimes such as car theft, assault and armed robbery have dropped 12.5 percent in the past year, said Lugo García. Police response times have fallen to fewer than five minutes on average this year from more than 10 minutes a year ago. He attributed both improvements to the video surveillance and other programs that have transformed police operations.

One of those transformations involved scaling back the area for which each officer is responsible: Instead of 10-square-mile quadrants—a massive area when the city's notorious traffic is taken into account—cops have been assigned areas no larger than a square mile. They carry cell phones now and share the numbers with residents and business owners.

But police corruption remains an issue.

Mexico City police often have poor levels of education, receive just six months of training and are paid an average of 8,000 pesos per month, or about $600. The capital has dismissed some 6,500 cops for not complying with anti-corruption measures over the past three years. And paying bribes for infractions remains a common practice.

So like it or not, police say, the cameras are there to watch them, too, serving to deter officers from openly colluding with criminals or exacting bribes.

Lugo García noted that the 1,200 people who work at the command and control centers have received additional training, and all have passed the now-required "control and confidence" exams, including polygraph tests.

Alberto Islas of the Mexico City-based security consultancy Risk Evaluation questions the effectiveness of so much technology in a city where standards are lower and worries about any "Big Brother" effects, including misuse of the system.

"You can invest a lot in technology, but at the end of the day, you have to look at the human factor," Islas said. "Mexico City has one of the best systems in the country but it's still far from international standards."

All told, the "Safe City" initiative—including video cameras, command and control centers and operational restructuring—has cost the city $460 million.

Photo: Lauren Villagran

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Lauren Villagran

Correspondent (Mexico City)

Lauren Villagran has written for the Associated Press, Dallas Morning News and Christian Science Monitor. She holds a degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure