Cities and security: a Mexican story

Brenda Cooper @ 20-10-2010

For the last few months I dove deeper into topics I’d already covered.  But this month I decided to do something else.  At my job, I get the Homeland Security Newswire (I manage technology for a medium-sized local government).  I keep seeing various articles that reference Mexico – the big country next door to the US that is in some danger of becoming a failed state; the one in the bloody middle of an honest-to-goodness drug war rather than an anemic War on Drugs.

First, a brief picture of the situation.  Over 28,000 dead; the President of Mexico calling on the President of the United States to oppose California’s ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana; five Mexican Mayors killed in a six week period this year;  11 reporters dead, others under threat.  That – and what you’ve seen on the news — probably gives you the picture, but if you want more detail, the Los Angeles Times has a ton of stories they’ve assembled into an investigative report called Mexico Under Siege.

What is interesting me is the technology being deployed in hopes that will increase security in Mexican cities, and the possible ramification of that technology not only on Mexico, but on the rest of us.

First, the technology details:

  • In Leon, Mexico, iris scanning technology is being deployed city wide.  And this isn’t a small city.  Each of the over one million citizens will be scanned, and the scans used as biometric identification at ATM’s, driving by on the street, walking through town, and entering a doorway.  This is real and actually happening now.
  • Mexico is poised to issue a multifactor national ID system with facial, iris, and fingerprint information.  The contract was granted to the Mexican subsidiary of Unisys.  Mexico is not a small country; this is be a huge project. I’m not sure that the ID’s are actually being issued yet, but if you take the technology being implemented in Leon and the new National ID’s, it might be possible to pretty much track anyone’s movements in any city where both are deployed.
  • There is an article over at Dipnote that talks about helping Mexican nationals play a role in their own security in the besieged city of Juarez through providing a secure tipline that citizens can access via cell phones. The system is supposed to be available soon.
  • The United States is now flying Predator UAV’s all along the border.   This was mentioned earlier here at Futurismic by Paul Graham Raven.  You may remember the failed mesh wireless border security system with all the little cameras.  Even though it failed, the idea has not gone away.  Any number of security vendors seem to offer it, although more for site surveillance than for thousands of miles of border under constant siege. Still, if the technology proves itself, I expect to see it back on the international border and maybe at the borders of cities.

Of note, I couldn’t find out anything about what technology the cartels are using.  But regardless of who is using what, this is the first democratic country I’ve seen with this kind of tech being widely and visibly implemented (and no, Mexico is NOT China or Iran).  I have not heard that there is much resistance to the technology by Mexican nationals, nor could I find any feature stories on resistance.

Anyway, this has got me thinking about secure cities, fear, and the future. Let’s explore some possible outcomes:

  • It could work.  I’m a general believer in the idea that transparency is more good than bad, and if I need to be present with my eyes working and alive (apparently the technology tests for that) to have money come out of my bank, that’s good.  If my neighborhood is safe from roaming drug cartels, that’s good too.  There is often less crime when the chance of getting caught goes up (even Neighborhood Watch programs proved that point).  The Juarez tipline is good since it uses normal people as actors in the solution.
  • It could devolve into serious big brother.  In the cities where I’ve worked for local government, all have had some citizens who don’t want “those” people around – sometimes “those” people are bus-riders, sometimes they are child molesters, sometimes they are recovering alcoholics and always they are the not-as-rich-as-me.  Combined with a corrupt government, this technology is downright scary.  The very first science fiction story I ever wrote (and thankfully never published) the world-building consisted of a big city with all the rich inside and all the poor outside.  The wise editor who didn’t buy the story called the idea “hackneyed” but we haven’t seen it play out in the real world yet.  This might take us a step closer.
  • It could create safer but less accessible cities, and push crime and dissent to the fringes.  Imagine chasing down all of the poor children in Tijuana or along the Mexican Riviera road to Coba – the ones that hold little empty fists out on hope of a few pesos but might overrun your car if you actually stop.  They are outside the economy anyway, and I can imagine this strengthening the black market economy the cartels and the poor live in.

As far as the UAV’s on the border, they may help.  But I don’t really expect to ever see that long line ever completely closed, and I think it would be easier to stop or slow addiction here than the flow of drugs across the border.  We obviously don’t want to stop the flow of workers or we wouldn’t hire them.  But that’s a different blog topic.

Worldwide, there are now more people living in cities, and a lot of those cities have security problems, although for varying reasons.  Mexico may be the only large and largely developed country with such a consistent problem.  The border cities are the worst, but the drug cartel war is being in most parts of the country.

At any rate, we seldom look to Mexico for anything.  We look at China and get scared by its over-controlling government and we watch the failed states in Africa do a one-step-forward one-step-backward dance on the brink, but perhaps we should be watching Leon and Juarez, and paying careful attention to the lessons that get learned from that experiment.

If you want to do more research:

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Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

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2 Responses to “Cities and security: a Mexican story”

  1. Chad says:

    “The border cities are the worst, but the drug cartel war is being in most parts of the country.”

    This is completely incorrect. In the vast majority of the none boarder cities/states the drug “war” is closer to normal police anti-drug work than a war. You can find a few bad events in those areas, but not the consistently tragic events happening along the border.

  2. Brenda Cooper says:

    Hi Chad, when I did the research for this, one of the things I looked at was the spread of drug-war related deaths across the country (source LA Times: http://projects.latimes.com/mexico-drug-war/#/interactive-map) and it looks to me like most of Mexico is involved. The Yucatan Peninsula and Baja and most of the gulf coast are almost unscathed. I suspect you are right that the tenor of the conflict is more like a police action away from the border — most stories about civilian casualties, for example, are in the border cities.
    I would still travel to many parts of Mexico, it’s a country that I love and that I write about periodically in fiction. Mexico is not here – even twelve years ago when my son and I were traveling through the ruins along the Mexican Riviera, men younger than him (teenagers at best) with guns and Mexican Army uniforms pulled us over from time to time and searched the car for drugs. Since we didn’t have any, I never got to find out if they would have stolen them or arrested us or both.