More than a game: the Pan American Games as a regeneration opportunity for Mexico

From 14 October 2011, Mexico will be hosting the Pan American Games, a major international sporting event. Security forces will be significantly challenged, but the lasting legacy may be an overall improvement in law and order in Mexico.

By Elizabeth Deheza and Valentina Soria, RUSI

The scale and costs associated with hosting modern international sporting events are skyrocketing. Maintaining a safe and secure environment that meets international expectations has therefore become a huge financial and logistical effort. If this is problematic for nations with a sound and effective national security infrastructure, it becomes extremely challenging for countries where the security apparatus might present structural flaws or operational weaknesses. It also happens to be the case that these same countries often suffer from a high level of petty criminality, serious organised crime and/or social and political unrest. This bore validity for South Africa (2010 Football World Cup's host) and India (2010 Commonwealth Games) and it remains true for Russia and Brazil, hosts of the 2014 Winter Games and the 2014 World Cup/2016 Olympic Games respectively. 

Such peculiarity has two, related, consequences: first of all, it leads sporting organising committees and participant countries to demand that a greater and more effective mechanism is in place to deliver security in an already challenging environment; secondly, it encourages the host country to invest heavily in the improvement, and in some cases the establishment, of valuable national security tools. This explains why such events are to be viewed as both a great challenge and a unique opportunity. Arguably, the ability to capitalise on them rests on the willingness and capability of the host country itself; as such, there is no automatic guarantee that the good and positive experience of the Games will be turned into a lasting legacy which can contribute somehow to improve a country's overall security environment.

Nonetheless, the forthcoming XVI Pan American Games could well be seen as offering such a 'regeneration' opportunity for Mexico.

XVI Pan American Games in Mexico

In 2006, the city of Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco (Mexico) was selected by the Pan American Sports Organisation to be the official venue for the 2011 Pan American Games, due to take place from 14 to 30 October. The Parapan American Games for athletes with a physical disability will be staged from 12 to 20 November in the same city. More than six thousands athletes from forty-two nations will take part in hundreds of sporting competitions expected to be attended by approximately one million spectators. The Guadalajara 2011 Organizing Committee (COPAG) has administered US$ 213.2 million of investment for the Games, including the construction of new sport events, an athlete's village, hotels, and the improvement of the infrastructure of highways, roads and the transit system.

Mexico will become the first country to host the Pan American Games three times - Mexico City was also selected in 1955 and 1975. However, this time the security environment in the country will be very different. Recent incidents, such as the launching of grenades at the entrance of a nightclub, frequent shootings in various parts of Guadalajara and a further shooting incident in August of this year near the football stadium Territorio Santos Modelo of Torreón (in the northern state of Coahuila) have raised concerns among the organisers and the international community around the safety of the metropolis and the ability of the police to maintain order. Ensuring a safe environment for the Pan American Games will undoubtedly put increased strain on a security apparatus which it is struggling to cope with such increase in violence.

Violence in Guadalajara

Guadalajara itself has been the scene of escalating fighting over the past eighteen months, with gangs attacking bars, police stations, hijacking cars and blocking major roads and highways. The violence in the state of Jalisco is related to the dispute between major drug cartels in the country, the Sinaloa Federations, Los Zetas and the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG), assisted by five local cartels and three criminal organisations[1]. They are desperately trying to gain control of the 'plaza of Guadalajara' - a location of strategic relevance as Mexico's second city and because of its proximity to the country's largest port, Manzanillo. The latter has proved to be an important hub for the smuggling of cocaine and methamphetamine.

Recently, as a consequence of a CJNG's offensive, thirty-two bodies belonging to Los Zetas members were dumped in the middle of the road, in Veracruz. Further incidents like this could well increase the inter-cartel conflict in the city. There is no reason why such strikes could not take place during the Pan American Games, as the cartels seek the attention of the media and the intimidation of the military and the civilians. At the same time, it is perhaps unlikely that the cartels will purposefully target civilians at the Games as their primary interests lie in the elimination of competition from other cartels and the disruption of operations by military forces. The most likely scenario could therefore see innocent people caught in the crossfire or falling victims to other types of crime that are becoming ever more frequent, such as express kidnapping, extortion and robbery.[2]

Security deployment

In light of the recent wave of violence which has affected the city, the security of Guadalajara, as host of the Pan American Games, has become a top priority for the regional as well as the federal government. A 'Coordination Group for the Safety of the Pan American Games' has been set up and around US$10 million have been invested for the deployment of ten thousand municipal, state and federal police. Overall, eighteen security entities will be deployed, including early warning and reaction units, social assistance, rescue and special operations units as well as elements from the Mexican army and navy to patrol the metropolis and the nearby cities of Ciudad Guzman, Puerto Vallarta, Lagos Moreon and Tapalpa where some of the competitions events will also take place.

The federal police have mobilised their tactical, intelligence and technology teams including a mobile field hospital. A Command Centre has also been established inside the Expo Centre of Guadalajara as a hub for constant communication between Interpol, Ameripol and the Plataforma Mexico - which contains most of the public information records in Mexico. This considerable investment has certainly benefited the Mexican security infrastructure, by boosting resources and improving the police forces' level of preparedness. The latter, for instance, have also undergone specialised training in nuclear/radiological search and detection[3], an area of expertise which was probably underdeveloped until very recently. Equally remarkable is the establishment of a network of more than 650 CCTV cameras providing a full coverage of the Games.[4]

Challenges for the security forces

With the deployment of ten thousand police officers, five-thousand of whom federal military forces, Guadalajara will be well-shielded from acts of criminality. However, such an enhanced military presence may also increase the levels of violence in Jalisco as cartels try to send out the message that they - rather than the state - are in control of the territory. Indeed, this argument is reinforced by the fact that, until very recently, one of these criminal groups had their headquarters located just blocks away from the athletics stadium and behind the Municipal Police Headquarters.

Additional challenges may come from criminal activity in Guadalajara. The athletes' village will be a bunker, their transportation will be meticulously organised and the venues themselves will be heavily secured. Yet, low-level criminality may still take place between these security bubbles, transportation may not work properly and the venues themselves may present some organisational flaws. From their part, police forces will be assisted by eight thousand volunteers who will provide assistance and will help ensure the Games are a success.

Looking beyond the Games

As for every other major international sport event, the logistics of the Pan American Games presents a great security challenge. It could be interesting to speculate whether Mexico would have been chosen in any case, had the spike in violence erupted before 2006.

After the terrorist atrocities during the Munich Olympics in 1972, security has been  a major consideration for tournaments. This was reinforced after 9/11 and became a fundamental parameter when granting major international sport events. Large events with mass crowds remain an appealing target for terrorist and criminal organisations worldwide. Aspiring host cities need therefore to prove they are well equipped to manage the task ahead; not surprisingly, any bid document also contains a very detailed security section, providing a city's risk assessment and a related overall security plan.

Needless to say, it is unlikely that the threat environment would remain unaltered until the start of the event. Risk assessments need therefore to be constantly updated and security arrangements need to be modified accordingly. The 2012 London Olympic Games are a case in point; in the bid document, London had been presented as a low-risk environment. The day after the city was awarded the Games, terrorists struck at the heart of the capital. This is not to say that the risk of terrorism had not been factored in, but certainly 7/7 dictated a much more hard-nosed approach to Olympic security.

Still, one can argue whether the UK's ability to provide an appropriate safety and security guarantee for the Games would have been put in question, had 7/7 occurred just a few days earlier. Similarly, the predictable risk of over-stretching Mexico's security apparatus - as it struggles to keep up with a merciless 'drug war' - would have stood as a powerful reason to judge Guadalajara as not suitable for the task.

Therefore, it is perhaps fortunate that the city (and the country more generally) has been given such a chance to prove itself; the benefits are considerable and the opportunity for real regeneration unique. The investment in security, together with the redevelopment of civil infrastructure, will, and must, not be lost with the closure of the Games. Rather, they should put in motion a long-term process of improvement and optimisation of national resources, human capital and institutional assets which will enable the Mexican government and its citizens to regain control of their own country. The Games will be a showcase of regional and national pride for many. For Mexico they could also be a crucial moment of national redemption.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, 'La Raiz de la Violencia', Nexos, 1 June 2011

[2] Scott Stewart, 'Mexican Cartels and the Pan American Games: A Threat Assessment', STRATFOR Global Intelligence, 29  September 2011  

[3] 'NNSA Conducts Additional Training in Preparation for Pan American Games', Press Release, National Nuclear Security Administration, 10 August 2011

[4] 'Supervisan Seguridad para Juegos Panamericanos', El Universal, 4 October, 2011.


Valentina Soria

Associate Fellow

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