Story highlights

  • There are 8,000 to 10,000 unlicensed firms operating illegally in Mexico.
  • There are currently 1,168 federally registered private security firms - up from only 173 in 2005.
  • Illegal and unlicensed firms operate with 240,000 to 600,000 employees.

Source: Al Jazeera

Guadalajara, Mexico -  Having spent the morning rumbling through downtown Guadalajara in their impenetrable armoured van, the three Seguritec employees entrusted with collecting cash from local businesses stopped to receive one last payment. Two of them got out to collect the money, but upon returning to their vehicle they realised their colleague had fled with about $800,000 in local currency.

It was an embarrassing setback for  Seguritec , a private security firm with the slogan: "Security and trust in transporting valuables".

"It's the first time we've had a problem of this kind," Rafael Torres, Seguritec's local representative, told Al Jazeera. "The money belonged to our clients, who are mostly local banks, but it should be insured. We'll be carrying out our own investigation and aiding the authorities however we can."

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Federal police caught the alleged culprit with suitcases full of cash just five days later, but the heist on July 29 added to the growing list of controversies involving Mexico's thriving private security industry.

Business has been booming since Felipe Calderon, who was president at that time, declared war on organised crime in December 2006, yet insiders and security experts warn that the industry is rife with corruption and that its rapid growth risks exacerbating security inequality by encouraging authorities to neglect public security.

There are currently 1,168 private security firms registered with Mexico's federal government, up from only 173 in 2005. The majority are located in Mexico City, the adjacent Mexico state, and western Jalisco state, which encompasses Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city.

Arnulfo Garibo Ramírez, president of the National Confederation of Private Security Firms, told Al Jazeera that there are another 8,000 to 10,000 unlicensed firms operating illegally in Mexico, with anywhere from 240,000 to 600,000 employees.

Seguritec’s Guadalajara headquarters. Seguritec is one of 1,168 private security firms with federal permission to operate in Mexico [Google Street View]

'A really dirty business'

Sitting outside a quiet Guadalajara cafe one sunny Saturday morning, the former private security professional Juan Castillo told Al Jazeera the boom is a by-product of the government offensive that caused the large cartels that specialised in transnational drug-trafficking to fragment into smaller gangs dedicated to more predatory crimes such as kidnapping, robbery and extortion.

With Mexico's middle and upper classes increasingly affected [PDF] , the demand for private security skyrocketed.

His dark eyes constantly scanning the perimeter for any unusual activity, Castillo, who asked that his name be changed to protect his identity, said the security industry "is a really dirty business". With guards typically making only $300 a month, he said many supplement their income by stealing shipments of pharmaceuticals, electronics, alcohol, cigarettes or other goods that they are supposed to be protecting.

Others make extra cash as cartel lookouts, Castillo added, while many criminal gangs even found their own security firms to disguise or partially legitimise their operations. Acquiring a licence for security guards to carry guns, for example, is a simple way of subverting Mexico's ban on firearms.

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"It's very easy to get the permits through bribery. That way the cartels can legally arm their assassins," Castillo said. "It's also very easy to launder money through security firms because the authorities never check how they spend their money or how many employees they really have."

There is ample evidence to support Castillo's claims.

On August§ 16, Jalisco's attorney general, Eduardo Almaguer, announced that the head of a licensed security firm was working to protect Jesus Alfredo Guzman, son of the infamous jailed Sinaloa cartel boss, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman.

The men were abducted by gunmen from the rival Jalisco New Generation cartel at a restaurant in the Pacific resort of Puerto Vallarta the previous morning and were reportedly released days later after negotiations between the two cartels.

In March, Almaguer's office  shut down  Segmex, an unlicensed security firm that the Jalisco cartel had been using as a front for recruitment. Promised a wage of about $160 a week, the applicants underwent weapons training using paintball guns at a remote ranch before being put to work selling drugs. Thirteen people were arrested when a police raid put an end to the operation.

In another case, in 2013, the US Treasury Department sanctioned  Sistemas Elite , a Guadalajara-based security firm with more than 150 employees, for laundering money and providing protection for the Beltran Leyva cartel. The now-defunct company was allegedly run by the cartel's head of security, Arnoldo Villa Sanchez, who was arrested the following year.

Common security measures

There are also many law-abiding firms. Guadalajara native Enrique Cortes, who has run the regional operations of international technology companies such as Dell, Wipro and now Luxoft, told Al Jazeera they often use private security firms without any problems.

"In my previous job, we hired private security mostly for secure transport between the office and the airport," Cortes said. "As for security for the office, we are tenants in a building, so we rely on their very good private security personnel."

Yet not everyone can afford their own security detail. While many affluent families live in gated communities with shared 24-hour security, others attempt to protect their homes with barred windows or guard dogs.

A Seguritec van rumbles through Guadalajara. Seguritec is a private security firm that specialises in transporting valuable goods [Duncan Tucker/Al Jazeera]

Guadalajara resident Miguel Solorzano told Al Jazeera that rising crime levels led him to buy a security gate, electric fencing and CCTV for his house.

"The number of robberies and assaults is getting out of control," he said. "My brother and a friend of his were assaulted outside my house two months ago and both their cars were stolen."

Solorzano believes the insecurity is a result of neglect by local authorities: "There is very little street lighting in my neighbourhood at night. I've complained to city hall but they don't do anything."

Brian Phillips, a Mexico City-based researcher who specialises in security issues, told Al Jazeera that "when the government sees more and more citizens using private security it becomes tempting to cut public security funding because they think they don't need to provide as much public security."

Those who cannot afford private security risk being left unprotected, he warned.

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Phillips also said that there is much less accountability with private security, as well as concerns over the human rights of suspects caught by security guards.

There is little oversight of their conduct, noted Antoine Perret, a research fellow at Columbia Law School, in a 2013 paper [PDF] , because Mexico's laws are not designed to confront possible human rights violations by non-state actors such as private security firms.

This may be about to change. On August 29, Mexico City's mayor, Miguel Angel Mancera, announced new regulations to standardise the training, certification, registration and insignia of every private bodyguard in the capital.

The next day, National Security Commissioner Renato Sales proposed legislation to create new regulatory bodies and a database of all private security personnel in Mexico. In a recent press release, he said this would make the industry "more effective and responsible" .

Security firms 'support' police

Salvador Caro, the head of Guadalajara's municipal police force, told Al Jazeera that he is working to ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds are protected.

In an interview at his office, the stern, 45-year-old former congressman revealed that upon taking charge last October, he encountered "severe problems" within the force, including corruption and infiltration by organised crime.

Instead of patrolling the city streets, he found that more than 600 officers had been unlawfully assigned to protect local politicians, businessmen and others with no relation to public office.

Caro said that he introduced intensive new training methods and stricter background checks to root out corruption, while reducing the number of officers on protective duty to fewer than 40.

"We reintegrated these officers so they could carry out the work they're paid to do, which is to serve our citizens," Caro explained.

To ensure that his "limited resources" are more fairly and efficiently utilised, he added: "We've divided the city into 41 sectors, and the number of police cars and officers deployed in each sector is now proportional to the level of crime, the level of risk, the circulation of valuable goods and the concentration of wealth there."

Caro affirmed that the level of private security in any given area has no bearing on the number of police deployed there, but revealed that officers collaborate closely with the security firms that protect local banks, pharmacies and grocery store chains.

"Private security firms play a supporting role to us because, in many cases, they're the ones who detain people who are robbing banks or businesses."

Guadalajara police chief Salvador Caro says that he has reassigned hundreds of police officers to protect citizens and not just the city’s elite [Duncan Tucker/Al Jazeera]

Insecurity fuels vigilantism

Unconvinced by the efforts of the authorities to combat crime, some of Mexico's most marginalised and vulnerable communities have formed vigilante groups in an effort to defend themselves in recent years, particularly in the rural western states of Michoacan and Guerrero.

Raul Munoz, a 59-year-old environmental activist from El Salto - a heavily polluted, crime-ridden industrial zone on Guadalajara's southeastern periphery - told Al Jazeera that he and his neighbours have also begun to police their own community.

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Looking out over the factory-dotted scrubland, Munoz said that they had just begun discussing forming a vigilante group when their friend Martin Ruvalcaba, an outspoken local musician, was murdered by unidentified gunmen in February 2015. His death convinced them of the need to stand up to the criminals.

"Here, they steal kids' mobile phones and drag girls into their vehicles, take them away and rape them," Munoz said. "Everyone in the community recognised the need for us to organise ourselves and be alert against the abuses being committed."

Equipped with low-calibre firearms that they keep hidden from view, Munoz and his companions now discreetly patrol their neighbourhoods at night and warn each other of any suspicious activity.

"The police are inefficient because they have no connection to society. People are afraid of them and don't respect them," he added. "But we're all neighbours, and we're the ones affected by crime. We take care of each other."

Environmental activist Raúl Munoz has formed a vigilante group to defend residents of El Salto from predatory criminals [Duncan Tucker/Al Jazeera]

Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter:  @DuncanTucker

Source: Al Jazeera