In Sight but Out of Reach: Security and Surveillance Technologies in Mexico

By Keith Guzik, author of Making Things Stick: Surveillance Technologies and Mexico’s War on Crime

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Law and Society Association annual conference in New Orleans, occurring June 2 – 5, 2016.


On May 1, 2016, the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) released its second and final report on the disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero, Mexico. Convened through an agreement between the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, Mexican government, and relatives of the disappeared, the GIEI caused a stir by questioning key elements of the government’s claim that the students were killed by members of the municipal police in collusion with a local crime syndicate, who later burned the bodies in a nearby garbage dump. Not only had an international forensics team found no evidence of the bodies at the dump, but a local military battalion was aware of the attack and did nothing to assist the victims. The report also faulted the government’s lack of cooperation with the investigation, which included refusing to make military officials available for interviews and not sharing phone records and video evidence collected the night of the disappearances.

That the highest levels of government would obstruct this investigation provides a stark indication of the failure of recent efforts to modernize the Mexican state’s response to insecurity. During the administration of President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006-2012), for instance, the federal government launched a trio of innovative programs to fight crime: a national mobile telephone registry designed to aid authorities responding to kidnappings and extortion calls; a national identity card featuring biometric data to protect people from identity theft and fraud; and a national automobile registry attaching radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags onto vehicles in order to combat car thefts, kidnappings, and drug trafficking.

Guzik.MakingThingsStickIn Making Things Stick, I examine the contemporary role of surveillance technologies in state security operations by considering the histories of Mexico’s mobile phone registry, national identity card, and automobile registry. The book challenges many assumptions we commonly hold concerning state surveillance and provides insight into the continuing insecurity in Mexico. For instance:

  • While surveillance technologies are generally understood as tools used by state authorities to keep watch over individuals, they are increasingly being used to monitor the things (automobiles, telephones, etc.) thought to underlie the commission of crime. By adhering RFID tags onto vehicles, having people register their phones, and creating identity cards based on biometric data, the state looks to gain purchase upon the material basis of everyday life.
  • State surveillance is directed at the state itself. In Mexico, where law enforcement officers and agencies are often corrupt and the data that the government generates on people and things are often inaccurate, programs like the automobile, mobile phone, and population registries are intended to route administrative data through devices and into centralized databases that would enable the federal government to reduce its reliance upon state- and local-level officers and agencies.
  • State plans for securitizing society through advanced surveillance and information technologies encounter great difficulty in materializing. In Mexico, the registries largely faltered as people refused to comply with measures that they saw as invasive, companies balked at the financial costs associated with the new security programs, the designs of the programs and technologies proved inadequate, and politicians, public officials, and state governments pushed back against the federal measures for political gain and to protect their domains of influence.

As the experiences with the mobile phone registry, national identity card, and automobile registry in Mexico demonstrate, state surveillance technologies have yielded neither the secured utopia nor the police state dystopia promised by their supporters and opponents.

For Ayotzinapa, the tracking of mobile communications and the recording of events via video cameras have not led to justice. But what the phone records and videos not released to the GIEI evidence is the continued unwillingness of the government to do what is required to achieve justice. And in doing this they provide the hope that surveillance technologies, when combined with sustained social mobilization and political action, may yet come to serve as tools for increasing public accountability over those in power and establishing the rule of law in our technological future.


Keith Guzik is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado, Denver. A free ebook version of this title is available through Luminos, University of California Press’s Open Access publishing program for monographs. Visit www.luminosoa.org to learn more. In addition to Making Things Stick, he is the author of Arresting Abuse and the co-editor of The Mangle in Practice.