A Fractured System – Mexico’s Criminal Investigation Network
In 2015, Mexico City’s government launched an electronic system that would coordinate the work of police, experts and public ministries, to improve their investigative capacity and solve more crimes. Here is the story of a promising remedy that failed.
By STEVE FISHER
1 de julio de 2020
It was touted as the platform that streamlines criminal investigations in Mexico City. It was going to bring the city into the new digital era, streamline the infamous bureaucracy that has for years kept justice out of reach. It was supposed to be a platform worthy of the most important city in the country: an international tourism hub, home to the country’s president and a business nerve-center of the continent.
The platform would, for the first time, connect forensics officials and investigative police with the prosecutors at the helm, delegating work through the system and across the city, providing intelligence that could help prevent crime.
The System of Interoperability of Actions and Procedures (Sistema de Interoperabilidad de Actuaciones y Procedimientos – SIAP) was meant to change the tragic course of unresolved crimes in the city.
In 2015, then-Governor Miguel Ángel Mancera’s attorney general opted to use individuals on staff to build the online platform, instead of contracting an external company. The city government was even recognized with an award for “most innovative in the public sector,” a year after its debut.
But five years later, an investigation into SIAP by Quinto Elemento Lab shows it was rife with glitches from the beginning and the system continues to hamper officials in their efforts to investigate crimes.
And resolving crimes has never been more urgent. It’s shaping up to be another violent year in the city. Just last week, a cartel launched a brazen early-morning attack against the secretary of security of Mexico City, using military-grade weapons. The impunity with which criminals operate in the city is, in part, the result of a decimated intelligence gathering system — a problem SIAP was supposed to help address.
Instead, SIAP is a fragmented system that has done little to contribute to police work.
A citizen reporting a crime expects that, at the very least, his or her case will be recorded in full in the system. But even that often does not happen.
Portions of criminal investigations are filled out in Microsoft Word documents and kept on paper instead of being filed electronically, according to leaked documents and 15 officials interviewed for this report. Many of the officials requested anonymity due to fear of losing their job for speaking out.
The georeferencing button in the system, meant to provide coordinates for a crime scene, and help generate intelligence, does not work. Forensics officers say they cannot upload crucial video evidence to the system because it often cannot handle video, and fields to describe crime scene evidence have prohibitive word limits.
“It’s a Frankenstein,” said Omar Ramos, a forensics officer in Xochimilco. “And it’s missing pieces.”
Up until 2019 an average of 728 cases were initiated on the platform every day. Hundreds of officials have access to the platform via an ID and password.
But often information discovered in ongoing criminal investigations is not uploaded there, leaving cases incomplete. Instead, criminal investigations reside on the personal thumb drives and hard drives of officials, according to sources.
And SIAP is often down.
Leaked records show officials noted the failures thousands of times since the platform was launched.
A review of hundreds of thousands of cases, from a leaked database, reveals officials regularly reported system glitches that kept them from uploading investigative reports, descriptions of evidence, video related to a crime scene or even their electronic signature, legally validating their reports.
According to the database, officials noted failures in the system more than 11,000 times from 2015 through late 2018. That’s an average of more than seven times a day during that period.
And that number doesn’t include the thousands of mentions of other problems, such as agencies where they didn’t have the system at all, or those who had trouble logging in or because the system wasn’t updated.
According to public records obtained via a public records request, the SIAP technical support team attended 1,831 calls reporting errors from officials between January 2015 and December 2019.
On average, that’s one call a day to report a glitch.
The current administration inherited the platform and has not yet fixed it.
According to an officer who has worked closely with the database, a new system is being built. The attorney general hasn’t announced it and didn’t respond to interview requests.
Meanwhile, SIAP has failed so often that this administration passed an amendment to allow officials to fill out reports via “any text editing tool.” This is why many officials opt to turn in their reports the old fashion way, in print form.
And the computers at the Attorney General’s Office are so outdated that it can be a feat just to open a Word document, much less access an internal server, according to public records.
The result is a poorly coordinated criminal justice system where criminal cases are delayed and sometimes never resolved due to a lack of information. Intelligence gathering is hampered with criminal records scattered in agencies across the city with no central coordination. Crime hotspots that could be identified are left undiscovered. The criminal history of repeat offenders is often sparse, or not available at all. And that results in many criminals going unpunished.
In the first six months of this year, Mexico City registered 560 homicides, despite heavy quarantine measures due to Covid-19.
History suggests most of those crimes will go unresolved. More than 94.5 percent of all crimes went unresolved in the city in 2018, according to a report by the think tank México Evalúa.
Officers often have little recourse in investigations and have to get creative because crimes don’t wait for systems to begin working.
“Obviously the plaintiff is there and I cannot tell them: ‘Look I’m sorry, come back tomorrow or the day after because the system isn’t working,’” said one investigative official who has spent more than ten years working for the Attorney General’s Office. “I need to provide a solution in that moment. And so I have to take down the interviews of that person in Word.”
This makes fighting crime a lot harder, according to Ramón Bernal, a former Mexico City investigative police officer who leads a national police movement that advocates for the human rights of officers.
“That information stays on the agent’s computer and does not make it to the Intelligence Units where they analyze all crimes and so Intelligence doesn’t map them out and can’t do their job well,” Bernal said. “And so it’s harder to stop organized crime groups or groups that commit crimes because one doesn’t know where they are operating because that report did not arrive.”
The current administration identified systemic issues with the system saying, in a 2019 audit of the Attorney General’s Office, that SIAP is poorly built and lacks important functions.
“This tool functions as a repository of information and not as a tool of execution of processes,” the report stated. “That means it is very difficult for the Attorney General’s Office to control operations.” The report identified that the deficiencies of the system can have an impact on accurate monthly, publicly reported crime statistics, which are derived from SIAP.
The document emphasized the need for a new system.
But even if changes were made, the computers used by investigative officers are old, and many barely function.
Documents obtained via a public records request show more than 80 percent of all desktop computers currently used by the Attorney General are still running Windows 7, a software program from 2009.
The other 20 percent use Windows 10 software, launched five years ago.
One official who works in the Álvaro Obregón prosecutorial headquarters said the computers struggle to open basic programs, much less a data-heavy platform like SIAP. “The computer freezes if I try to open a Word document,” the official said. During a visit to the agency, one officer sought to demonstrate SIAP’s functions but it simply would not load.
Officers cannot rely on their work computers to store information so instead they put criminal cases on personal USB drives or hard drives, according to multiple officials. This also allows them what SIAP does not: a rudimentary method to cross-reference cases and patterns of delinquents they’ve encountered.
For an investigative officer who works in the attorney general’s headquarters, called El Bunker, the ability to determine patterns of an alleged criminal is an enormous feat. “The problem comes from the fact that I do a report in Word with the same subject that committed a robbery two days ago in another place, which was also reported in Word,” he said. “So that information will never be able to be digitally cross-referenced because it has not been uploaded. You are blind because you only have what the witness is telling you in that moment.”
Cases languish due to the lack of access to information.
The official from El Bunker said he wastes hours searching for information on a case, often traveling across the city for paper documents held by a particular prosecutor. God forbid they are unavailable.
“There are times when people are on vacation,” he said.
Forensics work is also hampered by SIAP.
“Video is the queen of all evidence,” said one investigative official. But the system often cannot handle video uploads, according to multiple officials. A forensics officer who works out of southern Mexico City said she deals with system crashes at the end of every shift.
“We often spend hours sending our workload,” she said. “Repeating these procedures becomes very, very tedious and very tiring.”
They did roll out a new version of SIAP in late May, known as F-SIAP, with adaptations to changes within the agency. But sources say the problems remain.
And the Attorney General continues to add more connections to the system.
Under a new collaboration, the Mexico City Justice Tribunal has begun a “Technological Information Interconnection Plan” with SIAP at the core of the initiative. Officials can now in theory request arrests, search warrants and indictments via SIAP.
“The important aspect of all of this is that it allows us to have hearings online,“ said the Tribunal’s president Rafael Guerra Álvarez at an unveiling event for the program last October.
And Attorney General Ernestina Godoy agreed.
“It is something that truly facilitates a vanguard communication between the tribunal and the prosecutor,” Godoy said during a press conference.
Public records show seven calls were made to technical support the month the joint announcement was made.
Illustration / Diego Huacuja
Other contributors to the story: Phase 1 (2019). Yosune Chamizo, data analysis coordination and information design (2019); Spaceshiplabs, data development and analysis; Omar Bobadilla, exploratory maps development. Phase 2 (2020). Efraín Tzuc and Diego Martorell, database analysis. Quinto Elemento Lab is a non-profit investigative reporting organization in Mexico. Steve Fisher is a freelance investigative reporter based in Mexico.
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