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Peña Nieto’s Security Strategy: We Need to Talk

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Mexican Cartel Op-Ed No. 3:

Peña Nieto’s Security Strategy:  We Need to Talk

Nathan Jones

This series provides a retrospective look at the first year of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Sexenio with comments on the prospects for 2014. These Op-Eds, numbered 1-7, are written by various SWJ El Centro fellows. Of note is the dynamic that we are witnessing between the criminal insurgent aspects of the conflict now raging in Mexico and the PRI administration’s focus on promoting the interests of the Mexican ruling class over the security and safety needs of the majority of its citizenry. RJB  

In reviewing the first year of security policy of the Peña Nieto administration, we are forced to examine the shadows of a policy we know little about.  This is by design but cannot last because a lack of discourse challenges notions of democracy and the population will soon demand security improvements.  According to government statistics, homicides are down in the first 10 months of the Peña Nieto administration compared to the first 10 months of 2012 under the Calderon Administration.  Unfortunately, kidnappings are up 16% and extortion cases are up “almost 10%” over the same period.  The question is not if the current strategy is politically unsustainable but how long it will survive.

Hear No Evil See No Evil

As professor David Shirk has argued, the Peña Nieto Administration has engaged in an “ostrich” security strategy, in which it buries its head in the sand and pretends the security issue is not there.  As security analyst Alejandro Hope presciently pointed out, this cannot last more than 18 months without significant improvements in the rates of homicides, kidnappings, and cases of extortion.

Peña Nieto came into office knowing that his predecessor’s administration had become bogged down in a militarized assault on organized crime groups.  He knew he could not fall into the same trap and Mexico needed important reforms in education, finance, and energy.  He has succeeded in shepherding through many of these reforms, though their efficacy will be limited by the amount of compromise needed to assure their passage.  As I wrote for the Small Wars Journal Blog in January for the 2012 review, most of the security policy changes from the Calderon to the Peña Nieto administrations have been cosmetic.  To be fair to the Peña Nieto administration, the security situation is determined by the structures of the present environment including weak state capacity and powerful organized crime actors.  These structures were decades in the making and could not radically change in one year.

The administration has targeted the violent los Zetas cartel in the same way the previous administration did post 2010.  According to government documents procured by the AP in a Mexican freedom of information request, of the 122 most wanted kingpins, Mexican forces have captured or killed 69.  Of those 69, 23 arrested and 4 killed were with Los Zetas, which has widely been considered the most violent and territorially expansive cartel in Mexico.  It appears the only difference between this administration and the previous one is that the arrests are not made with as much fanfare.  It also appears that the Mexican military is becoming increasingly adept at making these High Value Target captures. 

Peña Nieto and the PRI party are thinking in grander terms than compartmentalized security policy.  For better or worse, political centralization has become a goal in and of itself.  In the context of security policy, this has meant coordination among all agencies at all levels of the federal government.  As security analyst Alejandro Hope has argued, the end of coordination is not specified, only that coordination is important.  The most symbolic act of coordination in the security sector was the elimination of the SSP and the placement of all of its security entities under SEGOB.   Last year I questioned whether this would result in an over concentration of security capacity in a largely political entity which could lead to abuse, e.g. the use of surveillance capacity against political rivals.  My questions remain.  Peña Nieto’s proposed gendarmerie, designed to bridge the gap between police and military function needed to fight organized crime, has fallen flat.  The initial proposal of 40,000 was revised to 10,000 and now instead of being an independent agency, it will be under the command of the federal police. 

The new unified legal code is another example of the centralization of governance promoted by the PRI.  Viridiana Rios describes it adeptly.  As it stands, all 32 states and the Federal district have their own criminal codes and interpretations of those codes.  Rios argues a uniform code would make it more difficult for criminals to take advantage of different laws in different jurisdictions and could create economies of scale to implement the national judicial transition to more transparent oral trials.  One obvious problem is that it could be bad for states that already had effective codes.  Again, for better or worse, this administration is thinking in grand terms.

Self Defense Forces:  “Criminals” we can’t live without

Government officials have come out forcefully against self-defense forces.  Indeed, this is understandable as they present a complex array of issues for the state. First, the arrival of self-defense forces suggests the state is not capable of providing security in certain “ungoverned spaces.”  This may be true but is something governments loathe acknowledging.  Second, the composition of self-defense groups is not certain.  Self-defense groups could in reality be funded by rival cartels or could be led by local caciques looking to enrich themselves by extracting rents from local mines or some other nefarious motivation.  Third, in cases where self-defense forces appear legitimate, the military could quietly use them to deny space to cartels.  This is classic counterinsurgency strategy that can be utilized—without massive human rights violations—against organized crime actors that look like narco-insurgencies.  In fact, it is in Michoacán and Guerrero where the Caballeros Templarios have taken on the most insurgent-like ideologies and modus operandis where these self-defense groups have arisen.  It is also here where self-defense force leaders claim to have tacit approval from military forces. 

The Peña Nieto Administration appears to have learned the wrong lessons from the previous administration.  For the new administration, it is best not to talk about security issues and focus on structural reforms.  Structural reforms are absolutely needed but what if Mexico needs something else fundamentally necessary at this stage of its democratic development?  What if Mexico needs public discourse with its government on security issues to galvanize the society against organized crime at all levels? The debate occurring in the public sphere is stunted without the participation of the federal government.  We can only lament that the Peña Nieto administration is not as eager to address this issue as the local and state governments and civil society of Tijuana have been. 

Categories: Mexico - El Centro

About the Author(s)

Nathan P. Jones is the Alfred C. Glassell III Postdoctoral Fellow in Drug Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.