Robbers Can't Bank on Lax Security

By John Barham

Despite the efforts of Mexican banks, crime still pays very well. The risk of detection is low, due to inefficient, poorly trained and corrupt police forces. A report from the Mexico City government says 307 police officers were fired for corruption in 2007.

Once a crime has occurred, there is little chance that the criminals will ever be caught and prosecuted, says the head of security at a bank in northern Mexico. “We have to do our own investigation, because we can’t rely on the police to do their work,” he says. “The police need to do better intelligence work. It’s not just a question of more resources.”      

Meanwhile, impunity only encourages robbers to keep trying their luck, even as the return on each assault keeps falling. n


Mexico’s banking industry has grown up fast since a financial crisis pushed most local banks into bankruptcy a decade ago. Today, all but one of Mexico’s big banks are owned by international groups.

As they came under new management, Mexico’s banks increased security budgets, raised the standard of security professionals, invested in technology, and transferred best practices gleaned from around the world to Mexico.

Since 2003, banks in Mexico have spent about $200 million to upgrade security. They have reduced the amount of cash held on site, restricted managers’ access to branch vaults, improved CCTV coverage, and increased training. The changes have made banks less attractive to robbers.

But it is a constant battle as criminals adapt. For example, thieves now loiter inside branches to identify people making large cash withdrawals and then rob them in the street or follow them home. Another challenge is the spread of ATMs, which has opened a wealth of new opportunities for criminals. A fully loaded ATM can hold more readily available cash than most branches.

Extortion and intimidation of bank employees by organized crime is also a permanent threat. Banks have countered this threat by holding less cash, equipping tellers with more discreet alarms, and by undertaking more careful CCTV monitoring of branches.

Another threat: Criminals are learning that well-executed fraud and credit card scams are less risky and yield a higher return than old-style bank robberies. Vetting of prospective employees and periodic screening of current staff is a key element in maintaining security.

John Barham is a former Security Management senior editor.



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