Mexican Cartel Op-Ed No. 6:
Disappointment is the Hallmark of EPN’s First Year in Office
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
When US President Barack Obama was campaigning prior to the 2008 election, he promised the masses that, if elected, one of his top priorities would be to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay that housed hundreds of “War on Terror” detainees. In 2009, he signed an executive order to close the camp, which his administration viewed as a symbol of controversial counterterrorism policies enacted by his predecessor.
However, the camp remains open to this day, largely because reality set in pretty quickly after that order was signed. Only about two dozen detainees could be tried in a US federal court, many would not be accepted by their home countries or even a third country if released, and roughly fifty were too dangerous to release at all [].
Obama is not the first world leader to enter office with high hopes, lofty ideals, and high expectations by his electorate only to have them quickly dashed by reality. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was elected by a deeply divided nation in 2012 with 38 percent of the vote; he was trailed by leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who garnered 31 percent []. However, one thing both sets of voters had in common was war fatigue. They were at the tail end of six years of former president Felipe Calderón’s militaristic strategy against Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), which had resulted in record body counts across the country and a significantly diminished national sense of security. Peña Nieto is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for seventy-one years and kept TCO violence to a bare minimum. Perhaps some voters felt a return of the PRI would mean a return to peace, but Peña Nieto made it clear on election day in July 2012: “There’s no going back to the past” [].
After taking office in December 2012, Peña Nieto made it clear that one of his top priorities was the reduction of violence at the local level. He wanted to distance himself from Calderón’s “kingpin strategy” by focusing more on prosecuting crimes like murders and kidnappings in communities rather than trying to knock as many capos off the most-wanted list as possible. Peña Nieto also wanted to pull significant numbers of soldiers back from the cities and rely more on police forces to enforce the rule of law.
To this end, the administration came up with the concept of establishing a national gendarmerie, a specialized military force under civilian control that would consist of 40,000 members and would “support municipalities with great institutional weaknesses or those with very few or no police.” The initial details were either very vague or non-existent regarding where the officers would come from, how they would be trained, and how they would fit into the security picture [].
As Peña Nieto’s first year in office progressed, more details about the proposed security force were very slow in coming. Officials later said the initial membership would consist of only 10,000 officers by the end of 2013. Many civic groups opposed Peña Nieto’s plan to create the gendarmerie by executive decree rather than by obtaining congressional approval. In mid-2013, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong announced a revised plan that placed the still-theoretical force under the Federal Police and reduced the initial membership further to 5,000 officers. By August 2013, only 1,710 officers had been hired, and administration officials said the gendarmerie would not begin their mission until July 2014 [].
Despite this major setback, the administration of Peña Nieto has overseen some major successes—namely the capture of two of the most wanted men in Mexico: Miguel Ángel “Z-40” Treviño Morales, the head of Los Zetas, and Mario “X-20” Ramirez Treviño, the head of the Gulf cartel. Although Peña Nieto never said he would completely shy away from pursuing major TCO figures, the arrests—along with the continued reliance on the military to make such arrests—led many drug war observers to ask if Peña Nieto had shifted his strategy to fall more in line with that of his predecessor.
One tactic, however, definitely veered away from the unprecedented levels of cross-border collaboration and intelligence sharing between the United States and Mexico that occurred under Calderón’s watch. The administration of Peña Nieto consolidated all intelligence operations under the Interior Ministry and significantly pulled back from the cross-border relationship Mexican and US agencies worked so hard to develop. It might have been Peña Nieto’s way of taking more ownership of the drug war’s management or an attempt to win domestic points by subtly snubbing the US government. Regardless, it has left several US agencies cold after placing a considerable amount of trust in Mexican institutions historically riddled with corruption.
After all is said and done, it is becoming clear that nothing significant has changed in Mexico security-wise after Peña Nieto’s first year in office. But while this means things haven’t gotten a lot better, at least it also means they haven’t gotten much worse. Chong claimed in April 2013 that violent crime was down 17 percent nationwide, and crime in the “Murder City” of Ciudad Juárez was down over 60 percent from just two years earlier []. However, as drug-related violence tends to do, the narco “hot spots” just shifted elsewhere to places like Michoacán, which is experiencing a surge in vigilante vs. TCO violence. The national sense of insecurity has also held steady or grown worse in the last year, as perception usually tends to trump reality.
As is the case with most world leaders—and particularly those in Latin America— Peña Nieto will continue to have a very difficult time enacting any new or modified security measures to deal with the TCOs as he confronts the realities of unending corruption, bureaucracy, and the unlimited funding and ingenuity of TCOs. The administration of Peña Nieto also can’t pursue any radical strategies now that the US government has taken ownership of its share of the drug war and committed almost $2 billion through the Mérida Initiative. His administration will have to compromise or completely scrap many of the initiatives he spoke of during his campaign and first year in office as he learns to navigate the continuously evolving security situation on the ground.
[] Jackie Northam, “Obama’s Promise To Close Guantanamo Prison Falls Short,” NPR.org, January 23, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/01/23/169922171/obamas-promise-to-close-guantanamo-prison-falls-short.
[] Nick Miroff and William Booth, “Peña Nieto is winner of Mexican election,” The Washington Post, July 1, 2012, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-07-01/world/35487146_1_pe-a-nieto-lopez-obrador-mexico-city.
[] Michael Kane, “Peña Nieto Discusses Proposed Security Force,” InSightCrime.org, July 3, 2012, http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/pena-nieto-discusses-proposed-security-force.
[] Geoffrey Ramsey, “Mexico’s Peña Nieto Backs off Proposed Gendarmerie,” The Pan-American Post, August 28, 2013, http://panamericanpost.blogspot.com/2013/08/mexicos-pena-nieto-backs-off-proposed.html.
[] Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sanchez, “Mexico government downplays deadly violence,” Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/apr/11/world/la-fg-mexico-violence-20130411.