Mexico City: Surveillance Technologies in New Urban Battlespaces

By Luis Losada Simón-Ricart

4 December 2018

This image shows one of the 21,000 surveillance cameras installed throughout Mexico City in an attempt to combat crime. (Image credit: Luis Losada)


Over the past few years, Mexico has significantly increased the number of CCTV systems in its security forces in an attempt to combat crime. This has led to a complicated discussion on the relationship between security and liberty in security studies, and it raises the question of whether Mexico has surrendered too much liberty in the pursuit of security. Mexico is using surveillance technology to create an illusion of security, and this is a norm that is unlikely to change.

Surveillance technologies, including CCTV,  are all based on ‘anticipatory seeing’ or what Bottomley and Moore defined as ‘the military goal of being able to know the enemy even before the enemy is aware of himself as such’[1]. CCTV is considered part of a process of securitization where urban areas, benefited from the liberal economy, are protected from the potential threats represented by the surrounding crowds, the ‘othering’. This process may be less obvious but not less significant and take place dividing the city into secure or non-secure areas, what Nelson Arteaga called ‘security archipelagos’ or ‘islands of order’. [2] As a result, cameras often ‘displace criminal behaviour to neighbouring areas something (…) that at a broader societal level hardly counts as progressive development’.[3] This process was already seen in past centuries when ‘cities were built with the idea of cutting out islands of order from a sea of chaos’. [4]

In Mexico, 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas, a number that is expected to increase to 89 percent by 2050.[5]The gradual increase in the proportion of people living in urban areas takes place in parallel with growing insecurity and violence. In the mid-1990s, a number of aforementioned factors created a time of political and social instability that led the country into a wave of insecurity, resulting in the implementation of new militarised approaches to reduce insecurity. Today, the country and Mexico City are  suffering from growing insecurity as the numbers revealed through the last years. In Mexico, murder statistics show 2017 to be the deadliest year on record, with a murder rate of 20.51 per 100,000 inhabitants — that is 70 homicides a day. In Mexico City, the murder rate increased to 12.31 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017, which is the highest rate since 1997. [6]

Homicides in Mexico City from 1990 to October 2018 (Source: Mexico Crime Report)[7]
Homicides in Mexico from 1990 to October 2018 (Source: Mexico Crime Report).[8]

The strategy implemented in Mexico City since the mid-1990s until today aims at permeating the police forces with the military-related technologies and tactics. The strategy followed two procedures to address the increased crime. On the one hand, it targeted some sectors from areas of the city where crime rates were higher, establishing checkpoints and control points under the authority of police or military forces.[9] On the other hand, it involved a strategy of securitisation that aimed to establish ‘a logic of monitoring, classification and control of the population´s movements’ dividing the city into quadrantsand establishing a video surveillance program. [10] For Nelson Arteaga, the strategy led to categorisation of ‘the citizens into sources of targets and threats’[11], in a time where ‘only seven percent of crimes committed in the city were solved’.[12]

The strategy received important criticism from some sectors of the population that were affected due to the sometimes-tricky processes to identify ‘potential targets’ affecting the check points or car searches, especially from the inhabitants that considered themselves victims and not threats. Consequently, the CCTVs were introduced to continue with the same securitisation process but through information technologies that are less intrusive. The so-called Surveillance Turn of Mexico City took place under the Lopez Obrador Administration in 2001. For the new government, the deployment of police forces based on military strategies was not proving effective and new approaches were needed. The technological response was seen as the ideal method to allow and ease the detection of criminals. The proposal was based on the rehabilitation of Mexico City downtown, through the installation of surveillance cameras in areas mostly occupied by low-income people and rough sleepers at that time.[13]

Today, 21,000 cameras[14] are installed throughout the city with 15,310 monitoring the highways and streets and approximately 6,000 in the underground with an estimated cost of US$4,000 per camera.[15] Further, during 2018, Mexico City authorities signed agreements with five shopping centres and the American retail company Walmart to connect their surveillance systems to C5, focal control center, and add one thousand new cameras.[16]

Official map showing in blue and red the current location of 21,000 cameras (Source: CDMX Report, 2013).


In order to increase the effectiveness of surveillance cameras, a deep reform took place within the police forces’ procedures aiming to improve the police response to different emergencies. The most significant reform was the division of the city into quadrants. The city is divided into 847 quadrants of 1.2 km, each under the authority of one police officer and a patrol.[17] The quadrants are selected based on route access, criminal incidence, population density and orography.[18] According to Victor Hugo Ramos Ortiz, Former Chief of Staff of Mexico City Police, ‘ their priority is to be present in less than three minutes in any reported emergency with more than one patrol’.[19] For the 15,310 cameras installed in the main highways and streets, there are 1,200 police officers’ monitoring 24/7, meaning that each police officer is responsible for monitoring approximately forty cameras.[20] Despite the number of cameras in Mexico City, they are still passive technologies that do not create alerts or patterns automatically.

Surveillance is here to stay having become a popular norm. The widespread use of CCTV is based on the role of cameras in promoting deterrence and detection; however, there is not conclusive evidence that this is effective, apart from the limited domain of car parks[21]. Further, we are part of a society ‘that constantly reminded us to feel afraid, to look fearfully around and take precaution’.[22] Our societies are raised in fear, and Bauman reminds us that ‘fear breeds fear’.[23] Since the end of the Cold War and following 9/11, our obsession with feeling ‘secure’ has grown in size and scope. Mexico City represents an example of how CCTV has permeated the security strategies implemented in urban areas as a technological solution with the intention of being perceived, creating an illusion of security. It must be remembered that there is no single or straightforward process to end criminality, and the only viable solution must be based on a holistic approach where the structural elements behind the growing insecurity and violence are taken into consideration.

Luis Losada is currently working at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Costa Rica and previously completed an MA in International Conflict Studies at King´s College London and a BA in Law and Political Science at Complutense University, Spain. You can follow him on Twitter @Luis_losada_.


[1] Stephen Graham, “Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism”, Verso, London and New York, 2011, 66.

[2] Stephen Graham, “Cities Under Siege …”, 149.

[3] Kirstie Ball, Kevin D. Haggerty and David Lyon., “Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies”, Routledge, London and New York, 2014, 241.

[4] Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, “Liquid surveillance: A conversation”, Policy Press (2012), 103.

[5] UN DESA, Country Profile: Mexico, Percentage of population in rural and urban areas”, World Urbanization Prospects 2018, Population Division. Available at (Accessed by 26/11/2018).

[6] Observatorio de la Ciudad de Mexico, Reporte Anual 2017: Incidencia de los delitos de alto impacto en México, 2017. Available at (Accessed by 29/08/2018).

[7] Mexico Crime Report, Homicides Rate since 1990. Available at (Accessed by 26/11/2018).

[8] Idem.

[9] Nelson Arteaga Botello, “Urban Securitization in Mexico City: A New Public Order”, Policing Cities, Urban Securitization and Regulation, Taylor and Francis Group, 231-245 (2013), 241.

[10] Ibid. 242.

[11] Ibid. 231.

[12] Nelson Arteaga Botello, “Urban Securitization in Mexico City”, (2013), 235.

[13] Ibid, 236.

[14] Some of the cameras in the streets are equipped with emergency buttons (10,074) and voice alarms speakers (12,364) [14] that in theory connects directly to a local police officer and aimed to ease the process of crime reporting.

[15] EL UNIVERSAL, “Más de 35 mdd, costo de cámaras de video vigilancia”, El Universal (2013). Available at (Accessed by 29/07/2018) and Lucia Jasso- Personal Interview, Mexico City (22/05/2018).

[16]MILENIO, “Conectan al C5 Cámaras de cinco plazas en la CDMX”, GRUPO MILENIO 2018. Available at (Accessed by 29/07/2018)

[17] Víctor Hugo Ramos Ortiz- Personal Interview, Mexico City (25/05/2018).

[18] Idem.

[19] Idem.

[20] Idem.

[21] Víctor Hugo Ramos Ortiz- Personal Interview, Mexico City (25/05/2018).

[22] Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, “Liquid surveillance”, (2012), 105.

[23] Idem.

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