Reconnaissance: Inside the Panopticon

A low-tech visit to Mexico City’s high-tech urban surveillance center.

C4I4 urban surveillance center, Mexico City
Mexico City’s C4I4 urban surveillance center, as seen from the roof of the parking garage. [Paulina V. Pulido]

Mexico City’s C4I4 is a fantastically overdetermined work of architecture: a concrete bunker, three stories high, that resembles a row of giant surveillance cameras aimed at the city. You can barely see the building from the street, as it rises above a 20-foot perimeter wall. But it can see you.

A fantastically overdetermined work of architecture… that resembles a row of giant surveillance cameras aimed at the city.

This is the nerve center for Ciudad Segura, billed as “the world’s most ambitious urban security programme,” and it wouldn’t matter if it were buried underground. Its eyes are 13,000 cameras arrayed throughout the Federal District. Built in 2011 by the Mexican telecommunications company Telmex and the French multinational military contractor Thales, the building consolidates municipal agencies and provides state-of-the-art tools for urban surveillance and crisis response.

Control rooms have proliferated in “smart cities” around the globe, but most urban data centers hide their military origins. Not the C4I4. Its name (Comando, Control, Comunicaciones, Cómputo, Inteligencia, Integración, Información e Investigación) is patterned after Thales’s C4ISTAR defense systems (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance), which enable remote commanders to monitor data and coordinate personnel in the field. 1

In addition to the surveillance cameras, Mexico City’s system includes two mobile surveillance units; a network of street police; environmental sensors that capture weather, seismic, and other data; panic buttons; and five regional stations (C2s, for Command and Control) situated in places where large groups frequently gather: in the city’s historic center, near the Antigua Basilica de Guadalupe, and near the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México. 2

C4I4 Central Control Room
C4I4 central control room. [Centro de Atención a Emergencias y Protección Ciudadana de la Ciudad de México / CAEPCCM]

C4I4 police workstation
C4I4 police workstation. [Hillary Mushkin]

At its heart is the C4I4 control room, where 90 call-takers, 132 dispatchers, and 20 surveillance operators staff a large, open area filled with digital displays of the city. On their 24-inch monitor workstations, they can view real-time HD (1080p) video feeds from nine cameras simultaneously. Software automatically recognizes license plates, monitors traffic, and tracks anomalous events such as people running or moving in a group. 3 Analysts can connect this information with data from gunshot and explosion sensors, maps, internet traffic, and databases from all 47 city agencies. Camera feeds are saved for seven days, or longer if related to an investigation. Police can thus track connections between people, vehicles, and locations. 4

That vision is further extended by the mobile surveillance units, which attend events such as protests in the Zócalo and religious pilgrimages near the Basilica. The mobile units accommodate up to six dispatchers and a supervisor, and they are equipped with system-connected workstations, loudspeakers, and two quadcopter drones outfitted with daylight and infrared cameras.

In 2014, I visited the surveillance center with a team of 19 artists, architects, and ethnographers. We found ourselves in the middle of a panopticon, where the observers are themselves observed. The C4I4 control room is a three-story cylinder, with dispatchers’ workstations in the middle, arrayed in rows without walls or cubicles. Overhead screens display key events under active surveillance, so that all can see. There are private offices for investigators on the first floor and for administrators on the upper floors. Supervisors have an unobstructed view of the dispatchers, but the dispatchers do not have a clear view of them. As the upper levels lack transparency, both literally and figuratively, these areas afford power to control the gaze without being subjected to it in turn.

Sketches by the Research Team (Slideshow)


Our guide described the facility and its operations in apolitical, technocratic terms. It keeps the city safe during natural disasters, religious gatherings, and political protests. But the building raises questions about the nature of power and the roles of human and technological vision. In Bentham’s panopticon, power is derived from a hierarchy of visibility. Whoever sees furthest is strongest. But for Foucault the panopticon is not merely a building but a “political technology.” 5 The power relations inscribed in its structure are applied across all sectors of society; the gaze is a means of social control.

An official photographer followed us throughout the tour, and his photos were posted on the center’s Facebook page.

The C4I4 is not open to the public, so we spent months negotiating access, and the terms of our visit were fluid even as the tour began. Initially, the staff forbade us to take photographs in the facility. However, when Director General Gerardo González arrived, he granted permission to take pictures anywhere but in the observation room that overlooks the command center. In that room we were only allowed to sketch, which underscored the special privilege of viewership there.

We had no right to privacy ourselves. An official photographer followed us throughout the tour, and even before the end of our visit, his photos were posted on the center’s Facebook page, covered with logos and watermarks. In one surreal moment, as staff members presented an overview of the center’s operations, we saw pictures of ourselves posted on the C414 news feed.

Government officials documented the author’s research team during their visit. Photos were immediately watermarked and posted to the surveillance program’s Facebook page. [CAEPCCM]

C4I4 urban surveillance center
Front entrance of the C4I4. [Hillary Mushkin]

In exchange for the visit, I was asked to present a drawing to the Director General in a public ceremony. I gave him a sketch of an exterior view of the building. Although he doesn’t know this, I didn’t have permission to make that image. The day before the tour, I had scoped out the building from a public street. I was told by guards not to take pictures or draw, but I had already taken a few photos, and I used one to make the sketch I gave the director. Power may be sustained through advanced militarized technologies, but it is ultimately wielded through ownership and control of the gaze.

Power is ultimately wielded through ownership and control of the gaze.

Of course, those interactions are shaped by my privilege as an artist and scholar. Alejandra Leal, an anthropologist on the tour, illuminated the broader political and cultural currents that have enabled the rise of government surveillance here. The C4I4 originated in 2001 as a pilot effort to gentrify the historic center of Mexico City under Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador. 6 He was determined to relocate informal economic activities away from the center, despite the fact that sixty percent of the population is engaged in the informal economy. 7

The mayor’s efforts were backed by the Telmex business magnate Carlos Slim, one of the richest people in the world, and one of the most politically influential citizens in Mexico. Slim aimed to rent properties in the historic center to affluent young professionals who would be attracted to living in a diverse neighborhood if they felt it was safe, and he recruited the police agency to help him achieve his goals. He oversaw the project’s execution and partially funded the extensive surveillance system, which overlapped with neighborhoods where he owned properties. Police who worked on the project were paid a higher salary than usual (ostensibly to discourage corruption). 8 Police chief Marcelo Ebrard was elected mayor in 2006, and he continued research and development of the program until the $460 million Cuidad Segura system was formally inaugurated in 2011. 9

Mexico City urban surveillance infrastructure
Mobile surveillance unit (left) and surveillance camera tower (right). [Hillary Mushkin]

Leal’s research shows that people in the neighborhood have divergent views of community-police relations. Most residents believe the agency is corrupt, and many workers in the informal economy turn to private “protection” groups rather than rely on the police. But as the neighborhood gentrified, Slim’s new, more affluent tenants looked to the police to maintain the social order. These tenants were offered a close relationship with officials. They were introduced at community meetings, and panic buttons were installed on surveillance cameras in areas where they live. 10 Similarly, in 2013, the Ministry of Public Security rolled out a smartphone app called Mi Policia that offers a direct phone connection to the nearest C2, while police track the caller’s location. (The app also provides officials with access to user data including contacts, call records, and emails.) But only one-third of residents have Apple or Android phones, and the technology is unlikely to be used by poorer members of the public. 11

Our hosts at the C4I4 conveyed an optimistic, futuristic vision of an orderly city controlled by unbiased, unblinking, omnipotent machines. But the people who operate the surveillance technology live and work in this broader context, and they interpret the data through their own subjective filters. As we documented their work with our low-tech tools — human interaction, observation, hand drawing, notation — we were conscious of our own subjectivity. Through dialogue with the Director General, and in our role as witnesses, we collectively considered the boundaries of engaged citizenship.

Authors’ Note

This excursion to the C4I4 was in conjunction with my project Incendiary Traces, an art and research project that considers relationships between vision, technology and power. It took place as part of Acciones Territoriales, an art exhibition curated by Daniela Lieja at Mexico City’s Museo Ex Teresa Arte Actual. My thanks to Daniela, Alejandra Leal, Pedro Ortiz Antoranz for helping to shape the event. Thanks also to the other participants for their contributions, and to Jena Lee for her editorial assistance.

  1. The U.S. term for C4ISTAR systems is C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance).
  2. Raúl Monge and María Luisa Vivas, “El ‘big brother’ de Ebrad,” Proceso, October 12, 2011.
  3. Daniel Hernandez, “Mexico City opens massive public-surveillance center,” Los Angeles Times, October 26, 2011.
  4. Monge and Luisa Vivas.
  5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
  6. Alejandra M. Leal Martínez, “For The Enjoyment of All: Cosmopolitan Aspirations, Urban Encounters and Class Boundaries in Mexico City,” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2011.
  7. Enrique de la Garza, et. al., “Mexico Informal Worker Organizing Inventory,” summarized and updated by Hugo Sarmiento, October 2013. (PDF)
  8. Leal Martínez.
  9. Hernandez.
  10. Leal Martinez.
  11. Robert Beckusen, “New Smartphone App Lets Mexico City Cops Track Your Location,” Wired, March 18, 2013.
Hillary Mushkin, “Reconnaissance: Inside the Panopticon,” Places Journal, February 2016. Accessed 08 Jun 2023.

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