Small Wars Journal

President Peña Nieto and Mexico’s Ongoing War on Drugs

Tue, 12/10/2013 - 12:03pm

President Peña Nieto and Mexico’s Ongoing War on Drugs

Chris Ince

According to the US Congressional Research Service (CRS), Mexico’s brutal drug trafficking-related violence has been dramatically punctuated by more than 1,300 beheadings, the public hanging of corpses, killing of innocent bystanders, car bombs, torture, and assassination of numerous journalists and government officials. Beyond the litany of these brazen crimes,[i] the violence has spread deep into Mexico’s interior. Organised crime groups have fragmented and diversified their criminal activities, turning to extortion, kidnapping, auto theft, human smuggling, resource theft, and other illicit enterprises.[ii] The wave of cartel violence began as Mexico moved from what was in effect a one-party state to a multiparty democracy.[iii] In this setting, having campaigned on a pledge to reduce violence and make changes to the federal governments public security strategy, many believe that, following a polished campaign and first few months in office; political, security and economic gravity are starting to take effect and President Enrique Peña Nieto is rapidly approaching a defining moment in his Presidency.  Against this background, and in the context of Mexico’s current security landscape, this essay identifies some of the perceived failings of the Calderón Administration and looks at the change in tack taken by Peña Nieto and attempts to come to a conclusion on whether or not this new strategy is proving effective.

Calderón’s Strategy

Undoubtedly, a key factor behind the ousting of the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) in Mexico’s 2012 presidential elections was the reaction to the high levels of violence and perceived insecurity that resulted from President Felipe Calderón’s ‘war’ against organised crime.[iv] According to Mexican Interior Ministry statistics there were more than 60,000 drug-related executions and 26,000 people unaccounted for during Calderón’s six-year Presidency.[v]  This said, the reality (while bleak) was never quite as bad as the International media painted it[vi] and, by the end of 2012, drug related killings were on the decline and Ciudad Juarez, once reputed to be the most dangerous city in the world, had significantly cut its levels of violence, experiencing some 10% growth.  Moreover, during 2012, foreign investors poured more than $55bn into Mexican Stocks and Shares - some five times more than that invested during the same period in Brazil.[vii]

When Calderón took office the power and economic influence held by the country’s largest criminal organisations posed a significant national security threat.  With this in mind he put in place a strategy aimed at reducing the sway of the country’s largest criminal organisations[viii] while trying to create a truly functional state with laws that were effectively enforced. The military-led crackdown on the Drug Trafficking Organisations (DTOs) was at the center of his domestic policy, having launched his aggressive approach almost immediately after coming in to office in December 2006. In the course of his campaign, he deployed 50,000 Mexican military forces - at its height in 2011 reportedly 96,000 troops were engaged - and thousands of federal police around the country to combat the DTOs.[ix]

While his actions were entirely justified, Calderón failed to put an effective communication strategy in place to explain the reasons behind his actions and, as a result, escalating levels of violence and murder[x] generated heightened levels of public dissatisfaction with the Federal Government that ultimately contributed to his downfall.[xi]

On assuming the Presidency in 2006, Calderón faced seven major drug cartels as well as numerous other medium sized, yet nevertheless powerful, DTOs.  As a result of his war against organised crime a number of these, notably Beltran Leyva, the Gulf Cartel and La Familia, were significantly weakened.  However, while inroads were made against some of these organisations, his government’s actions also prompted them to diversify and adopt new tactics and techniques in order to reduce risk and increase revenues.  This increased diversification was also accompanied by the emergence of a plethora of smaller players emulating the methods of the larger groups and a growing geographic dispersion of criminal activity with organised crime increasingly reaching smaller cities and communities that had not previously witnessed it.[xii]  More importantly however, the largest players (in particular the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas) were able to weather all government attempts to weaken them and emerged even stronger.[xiii]

Peña Nieto’s Very Different Approach

Seizing on public dissatisfaction with the effects of Calderón’s war, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto campaigned on a pledge to reduce violence and make changes to the federal government’s public security strategy. This pledge included a commitment to de-emphasise the fight against drug trafficking and focus on drastically reducing levels of criminal activity, protecting ordinary citizens from those activities that most affected them (such as extortion, gun violence, kidnapping etc.). In this context Peña Nieto promised to reduce levels of violent crime by 50% within a year.

Since being elected, Peña Nieto has launched a series of institutional changes to better fight crime.[xiv]  These changes are intended to demonstrate both a security strategy that is distinct from Calderón’s and that the PRI is no longer prepared to tolerate the systematic corruption (including the paying-off of criminal bosses in exchange for freedom to operate and State protection) for which it was reputedly famed in the seven decades before the PAN broke its monopoly.  These changes include:

  • The strategic refresh and launch of a new national security strategy, by Interior Ministry Under-Secretary Manuel Mondragon, with greater emphasis on the root social and economic causes of delinquency.  In support of this initiative Peña Nieto plans to commit some $9 Bn to community violence prevention projects centred on poverty reduction, youth centres, job training and community cohesion schemes - similar to those used in Ciudad Juarez.
  • The critically received signing, by the President, of a Human Rights related Law on Victims along with the intent of putting in place mechanisms to address kidnapping, extortion and forced disappearances.
  • The dismantling of the Ministry of Public Security, placing the federal police under the control of the Ministry of Interior and dividing the country into five new zones and twelve new regions to co-ordinate federal government security actions with the country’s states and municipalities.
  • Creating, by December 2013, a highly efficient paramilitary National Gendarmerie initially comprising 10,000 personnel (8,000 from the Army and 2,000 from the Marines/Navy) and having an annual budget of some $ 120 M.  It is understood that the Gendarmerie will cover some of the more remote municipalities with high levels of criminality and critical national infrastructure (such as airports, ports, toll-roads and borders) currently covered by the Armed Forces - thus eventually allowing for the Army and Marines to return to Barracks.

In launching these initiatives Peña Nieto has sought political ‘buy-in’ convincing the nation’s three major political parties to sign a ‘Pact for Mexico’[xv] and appointing a number of opposition figures to take up key positions in his security apparatus; including the former Mexico City Police Chief who has been given the task of establishing a coherent national police structure based out of the Ministry of Government.

As follow-on to these initiatives the President launched his administration’s National Development Plan in late May of this year, with the aim of ‘driving Mexico to its full potential’.  Based on five national goals[xvi] and three crosscutting strategies the plan builds on the ‘Pact for Mexico’ providing greater detail on economic and trade policy as well as funding for Science and Innovation.  This was followed in September by his first ‘State of the Nation’ address in which he gave a strong defence of his record in office to date and a commitment to continue his ambitious Programme of reform; listing what had already been done under each of the five ‘Pillars’[xvii] of his Presidency while insisting that his policies were starting to make a difference that would bring benefits to all Mexicans.

To date these initiatives have had little effect. Headline grabbing deaths, largely the result of inter-cartel settling of accounts have continued to be the norm with notable incidents in both Acapulco and the State of Nuevo Leon.[xviii]  A worrying development also (following concerns over poor law enforcement) is the emergence of civilian-armed protection groups in rural areas of Veracruz, Guerrero and Michoacán. A rapid expansion in 2013 of vigilante militias[xix] has created a third force in Mexico’s ongoing cartel related violence[xx] - creating an evermore-complex security environment for the government to operate in. Moreover as the militias have spread there is also concern that some are being used by criminal groups to fight their rivals and control territory.[xxi]

In this setting, there has been a outbreak of debate among Mexican commentators over whether or not the President’s honeymoon is over, with the ‘going’ inevitably having got ‘tougher’.  As time goes on the gap between exceptionally well-communicated aspiration and the hard reality grows evermore apparent and the Opposition has no desire to make things easy for Peña Nieto. Moreover, he has not managed to dispel the ingrained suspicions that many retain about the PRI - the Party that held power for some 70 years before being removed from authority in 2000.  However, the organisation and determination which characterised Peña Nieto’s electoral campaign remains in place; the ‘Pact for Mexico’ is holding and the President retains leverage over an Opposition weakened by internal division. 

This said, ten months into his administration, the Mexican Media and to a large extent the general public still appear willing to give Peña Nieto the benefit of the doubt, believing that he will be able to turn the security situation around and improve perceptions of security nation-wide.  In this context, while giving scant information on his security agenda, Peña Nieto has publicly focussed significant attention on promoting other areas of his government’s agenda, concentrating on development issues, combating corruption and addressing structural reform.[xxii] Moreover, Peña Nieto’s team are clearly hopeful that the Administrations new policies will start to gain traction and are banking on a stronger performance over the remainder of the year.

Arguably this change in approach, which so far has been widely supported by the media, was much needed as an excessive focus on a constant stream of negative stories, relating to Mexico’s increasing lawlessness, had significantly detracted from public debate on other important issues. However, what is unclear is whether or not the press has adopted this stance independently or whether the Peña Nieto administration has had a hand in persuading them to take this line.

The Prospect for Success

In spite of this there remains significant detail to be worked up in the Government’s new security strategy and the general public’s patience will only last so long.  The difficulties are stark; not least is the challenge of building institutions that are capable of addressing organised crime and improving Mexico’s woeful rate of conviction. Peña Nieto’s policies lack detail and one of the biggest unknowns is how the new government will interact with its larger neighbour to the north within the framework of the multi-million dollar Merida Initiative over issues such as drug trafficking to the US and the flow of illegal weapons to the south.  What is clear, however, is that Peña Nieto is taking a radically different approach to security from Calderón and, in public, is talking about anything but security.

In this context, Mexico faces a Herculean challenge; from the north, it faces pressure to stop the flow of narcotics to US users while domestically, it faces pressure to reduce the violence, kidnappings and extortion by killers financed largely by this illegal drug trade. This said, under its new President, there are many positive factors that signal Mexico might be able to break the downward cycle of violence and criminal cartels. The long-divided political class has shown unity in supporting a plan for building Institutions and reforming the Justice System and a national Programme for the prevention of violence and crime has been approved and is starting to be implemented.[xxiii]

Ultimately the success of Peña Nieto’s strategy will depend on how accurate his analysis of the current security environment and its root causes is.  While Calderón believed that the need to use Mexico’s security forces was a product and not a cause of the growing violence and a necessary response to the increasing power of the cartels and DTOs, Peña Nieto wants to demilitarise Mexico as soon as possible and lift the least privileged out of abject poverty by focussing on the underlying causes, including the need for better education and the generation of employment. Time will tell whether or not this very different approach will be successful.

The analysis, opinions and conclusions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the UK Ministry of Defence or any other British Government Agency.

End Notes

[i] According to the CRS the violence now associated with drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Mexico is of an entirely different scale. In Mexico, the bloodletting is not only associated with resolving disputes or maintaining discipline, but also it is directed toward the government and the news media. Some observers note that the excesses of this violence might even be considered exceptional by criminal market standards.

[ii] CRS Report R41576, Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organisations: Source and Scope of the Violence, by June S Beittel.

[iii] Raúl Benítez Manaut, ‘La Crisis de Seguridad en México’, Nueva Sociedad No 220, March-April 2009.

[iv] The CRS believe that while Violence is an inherent feature of the trade in illicit drugs the violence generated by Mexico’s DTOs in recent years has been unprecedented and remarkably brutal. In this context the Mexican DTOs appear to have no ideology other than a ruthless pursuit of profit and their corrupting influence and intimidation have challenged the state’s monopoly on the use of force and rule of law.

[v] A tally of the Mexican Government’s National Public Security System (SNSP) drug related homicide statistics over the course of the Calderón Administration totals to more than 63,600. 

[vi] Trans-Border Institute Special Report, Drug Violence in Mexico - Data and Analysis Through 2012 (by Cory Molzahn, Octavio Rodriguez Ferreira, and David A Shirk) establishes that: Mexico’s security situation has arguably attracted a disproportionate amount of attention and concern in international media and policy circles compared to other countries in Latin America. Homicide rates, one of the most commonly used indicators for comparing levels of violence, are much higher elsewhere in Latin America. With over 80 homicides per 100,000 people, Honduras has nearly four times as many murders per capita as Mexico. Guatemala’s homicide rate is nearly twice the rate in Mexico. Colombia - often lauded for having effectively restored its domestic security situation - has one and a half times the homicide rate of Mexico. Yet, in 2012, the New York Times featured 15 articles on violence in Mexico, compared with just three on Honduras, two on Guatemala, and two on Colombia. Many Mexican officials and citizens find this attention to the security situation in their country to be excessive and frustrating. Certainly, there is much more to Mexico than its recent violence: Mexico has one of the world’s largest economies, a fascinating culture, and beautiful tourist destinations.

[vii] Trans-Border Institute Special Report, op cit, suggests that: The relatively high degree of attention to Mexico’s security situation can be explained partly by its close proximity and ties to the United States. There is an enormous volume of trade between the two countries, with nearly $460 billion in 2011. Mexico is the primary international destination for US citizens traveling abroad, and approximately half of all U.S. citizens living abroad reside in Mexico. Thus, it is not surprising that overall attention to what happens in Mexico is far greater than it is for other countries in Latin America. Attention to Mexico’s problems of crime and violence probably also reflects and reinforces negative opinions and stereotypes that are pervasive in the United States and elsewhere. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, only about half of U.S. citizens have favorable opinions toward Mexico, which ranks 10th in US favourability ratings toward other countries (the ninth country, Greece, had 62% favourability).

[viii] Trans-Border Institute Special Report, op cit, establishes that: During Calderón’s term, total drug arrests soared to a peak of 36,332 in 2012, more than triple the rate of arrests at the outset of the Fox administration. In 2012, Mexican authorities targeted Gulf Cartel leader Mario ‘M-1’ Cárdenas Guillén (arrested) and Ezequiel Antonio ‘Tony Tormenta’ Cárdenas Guillén (arrested), and Jorge Eduardo ‘El Coss’ Costilla Sánchez (arrested); Los Zetas leaders Mauricio ‘El Amarillo’ Guizar Cárdenas (arrested), Oscár, ‘Z-42’ Omar Treviño Morales (arrested), Iván ‘Z-50’ Velázquez Caballero (arrested), and Heriberto ‘El Lazca’ Lazcano Lazcano (killed); Jesus Gutiérrez Guzmán (arrested in Spain), the cousin of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera; as well as high-ranking military personnel linked to the Beltrán Leyva Organisation.

[ix] International Crisis Group Latin America Report No 48, Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal Cartels and Rule of Law in Mexico, March 2013.

[x] John P Sullivan of the Center for Advanced Studies in Terrorism describes in, ‘Counter-supply and Counter-violence Approaches to Narcotics Trafficking,’ Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (March, 2010), how the response to the government’s enforcement crackdown led to the evolution of the conflict and violence: ‘In Mexico, when faced with a crackdown, the cartels chose to battle each other and the government to maintain a stake in the game. A high level of violence, impunity, and a criminal insurgency were thus an unintended side effect.’

[xi] During President Calderón’s six-year term, the brutal violence carried out by the DTOs and other criminal gangs included widely reported attacks on drug rehabilitation centers; attacks on parties of young people; the firebombing of a Monterrey casino in August 2011, killing 52 patrons and employees; and scores of targeted killings of Mexican journalists and media workers.

[xii] Trans-Border Institute Special Report, op cit, states that: The Mexican government’s efforts to dismantle the leadership of certain criminal organizations has contributed to a splintering of drug-trafficking networks, greater overall violence, and a more diffuse distribution of violence to different areas throughout the country. Some experts say that destroying leadership within cartels is not having a positive effect in the fight against drug trafficking and violence. They argue that while the arrest of top cartel bosses disrupts their operations, new leaders emerge and networks are reconfigured, often through conflicts within and between organized-crime groups.

[xiii] CRS Report R41576, op cit, establishes that: Former President Calderón made an aggressive campaign against the DTOs a key policy of his government, which the DTOs violently resisted. Of the seven most significant DTOs operating during the first five years of the Calderón administration, the government successfully removed key leaders from each of the organizations through arrests or by death in arrest efforts. However, these efforts to eliminate drug kingpins sparked change - consolidation or fragmentation, succession struggles, and new competition - leading to instability among the groups and continuing violence. Between 2006 and 2012, fragments of some of the DTOs formed new criminal organizations, while two DTOs became dominant. These two are now polarized rivals - the Sinaloa DTO in the western part of the country and Los Zetas in the east. They remain the largest drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and both have moved aggressively into Central America. Many DTOs and criminal gangs operating in Mexico have diversified into other illegal activities such as extortion, kidnapping, and oil theft, and now pose a multi-faceted organized criminal challenge to governance in Mexico.

[xiv] CRS Report R41576, op cit, establishes that: In his first three months in office, President Peña Nieto proposed some new approaches - such as establishing a 10,000 strong militarized police force or gendarmarie within a year, revising and expanding crime prevention programs, and refocusing the strategy on lowering violent crime such as homicide and kidnapping. But President Peña Nieto has also tried to shift the national conversation to a more positive message about economic growth rather than remaining focused on organised crime groups and the violence and mayhem that they cause.

[xv] The Economist, Mexico’s New Government, 8 December 2012.

[xvi] The five goals are:

  • Mexico in Peace - based on strengthening democracy, security and governance
  • An Inclusive Mexico - focussed on guaranteeing social rights for all citizens
  • A Prosperous Mexico - aimed at enhancing the nations productivity
  • Mexico with Quality Education - designed to coordinate education, science and technology
  • Mexico with International Responsibility - aimed at having an active foreign policy

Achievement of the goals will be assessed using measures such as: the poverty headcount, the national evaluation of academic achievement in schools, the WEF’s Global Competitiveness Index and the Globalisation Index

[xvii] Security, Inclusion, Prosperity, Education and Global Responsibility.

[xviii] The detention in July of the leader of the Zetas, the most brutal of the cartels, was a major success - checking (at least temporarily) some of the unease that the government’s revised security strategy was not having effect.  More widely, the security picture is mixed. The situation in significant elements of the country, including Mexico City, remains unchanged.  However, in some areas such as Michoacán the situation continues to deteriorate, with government officials suggesting that this is fallout from increased pressure on the cartels.  Nevertheless, high profile assassinations of individuals such as the Marine Commander of the Military District (of which Michoacán forms part) does little to improve perceptions of insecurity.

[xix] Civilian armed groups that claim to fight crime.

[xx] According to International Crisis Group the epicentre for this militia activity is in the Pacific States of Guerrero and Michoacán, where thousands of armed men participate in a range of vigilante organisations.

[xxi] International Crisis Group Latin America Briefing No 29, Justice at the Barrel of a Gun: Vigilante Militias in Mexico, May 2013.

[xxii] Mexico is looking outwards with increasing ambition and confidence with key objectives being to: diversify markets, reduce dependence on the US and maximise participation opportunities in expanding markets in Asia and Latin America.  With successful G20 and UNFCCC Presidencies behind it, Mexico is looking to become an evermore-significant International player building on its ‘Emerging Power’ political and economic status following recent (unsuccessful) attempts to bid for the leadership of both the WTO and IMF.

[xxiii] International Crisis Group Latin America Report No 48, op cit.


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Colonel Chris Ince is currently the British Defence Attaché in Colombia having previously most recently served in Mexico, The Netherlands and Afghanistan.


Outlaw 09

Tue, 12/10/2013 - 2:42pm

This is a timely article for two reasons---1) the author mentioned the potential clash between the governments security apparatus and the developing civilian defense groups arising from the local population and 2) this footnote is of interest especially because it comes from the US national level side as it appears to me that the CRS is seeing the beginnings of a criminal insurgency since they confirm that the TCOs or in the authors term DCOs are in fact challenging the government on the use of force and the rule of law which is the key item in looking at the developments of insurgencies.

"[iv] The CRS believe that while Violence is an inherent feature of the trade in illicit drugs the violence generated by Mexico’s DTOs in recent years has been unprecedented and remarkably brutal. In this context the Mexican DTOs appear to have no ideology other than a ruthless pursuit of profit and their corrupting influence and intimidation have challenged the state’s monopoly on the use of force and rule of law."

Again a good article which it could be nice to see more of.