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Mexicans don’t trust law enforcement agencies, which creates a toxic environment for combating cartel violence, according to research released on Thursday.

Roughly 90 percent of Mexicans have little or no confidence in municipal police. Judges hardly fair better, with 82 percent of respondents expressing distrust. The numbers help explain the rise of vigilante groups in Mexico, which have taken the law into their own hands.

The statistics are part of an analysis of Mexico’s security situation published on Thursday by the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C., based think-tank.

Source: The Wilson Center
Violence in Mexico has risen to epidemic levels in recent years, as the Mexican government has struggled to reign in powerful drug cartels. An estimated 60,000 people died in drug-related violence between 2006 and 2012.

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Source: Trans-Border Institute

A new phenomenon is on the rise in Mexico. In the southwestern state of Michoacan, local vigilantes have armed themselves and are combating the influence of criminal gangs without the help — or permission — of Mexican police.

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One of the “self-defense” groups, as they refer to themselves, reached a tentative cooperation agreement with the Mexican government in January, which legitimized their presence as a law enforcement body. Yet the deal is hardly set in stone. A prominent vigilante leader was arrested by Mexican police earlier this month, clouding the future of their arrangement.

The lack of faith in police officers is part of a vicious cycle fueled by an ineffective justice system.

According to one survey, six in ten Mexicans said the police did nothing when they reported a crime.

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Source: The Wilson Center

Confidence in law enforcement also drops when police solicit bribes. A survey that looked at 26 countries in the Western Hemisphere found that Mexico had one of the higher rates of police asking for bribes and one of the lower rates of trust in law enforcement.

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Source: The Wilson Center

Security isn’t solely the duty of police, however. Surveys of police in Ciudad Juárez and Guadalajara show that police view civilians as uncooperative.

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Source: The Wilson Center

To improve Mexico’s security situation, it will take civil society working in concert with law enforcement agencies, according to Dan Sabet, a professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a contributor to the Wilson Center analysis.

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“Unless there are police on every street corner, law enforcement agencies will depend on citizens to provide information and report crimes,” he writes. “Unfortunately, to date, distrust of the police along with other factors has produced a situation where only an estimated 12.8 percent of crimes are reported.”

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.