Mexican Cartel Op-Ed No. 1
The Year of Living Dangerously: Peña Nieto’s Presidency of Shadows
Paul Rexton Kan
Part 1 of a series that 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
Outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has a notorious thirst for information and statistics, reportedly tormented his staff with the slogan, “In God We Trust. Everyone Else Bring Data.” There are several interesting and contradictory pieces of data to apply to an assessment of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s efforts to tackle drug violence during his first year in office. The Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Publica (SNSP) reports that homicides fell in 2013 compared to the peak numbers in 2012. Official figures show that there were nearly 6000 fewer killings between January and October of this year as compared to last year—15,350 homicides versus 21,700. There were also the notable arrests of several cartel leaders of Los Zetas, the Gulf cartel, the Tijuana cartel, and even the Sinaloa cartel.
Yet these seeming successes cannot cast a strong enough shadow over more ominous data. The decline in reported homicides was in sharp contrast to the rise in extortion, which was up 10 percent, and the rise in kidnappings, which were up 33 percent. The number of disappearances also shows no signs of abating. The key arrests of some cartel leaders have not been matched with equal vigor in prosecutions or extraditions. Few high level cartel members have been prosecuted and sentenced in Mexico over the past year and extraditions to the US are stalled.
Also stalled was the plan to reduce the military’s activity in favor of building a national gendarmerie. There are no fewer troops on the street and the gendarmerie’s rollout has been diluted and delayed. What was to be a force of 40,000 will now be 5,000 to be deployed sometime next year. The continuing weakness of Mexican law enforcement and judiciary has undermined the already fragile confidence that civil society has in the government to provide security. The result has been that many Mexicans have taken public safety into their own hands. While there are no firm numbers, there has been the noticeable emergence of numerous vigilante groups and ad hoc militias, especially in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero. The internet hacktivist collective, Anonymous, has created franchises in Mexico who act as “cyber-vigilantes” to expose the collusion between drug cartels, business owners and politicians.
What has been most obscured in darkness is a coherent strategy to fight organized crime in the country. The explicit promise by Peña Nieto to reduce drug fueled violence in Mexico has not evolved into a plan for action with clear goals and measurements for success. Initially, it appeared that the new administration was attempting a violence reduction strategy to be focused on community building by offering more education, jobs, parks, and social activities while sweeping up lower level criminals and not focusing on removing kingpins. However, what has emerged is not a violence reduction strategy, but a “violence perception management” strategy. The management of perceptions of drug violence has the goal of reducing drug killings from the headlines of national and international news so that PRI can focus on its larger reform package of economic and social policies like tackling education, energy, and telecommunication.
Drug violence is an unwelcomed distraction from the grander plans of the PRI and President Peña Nieto. By intention or by default, their organized crime strategy in this first year has sought to drape a veil of shadows across the country’s drug violence by bringing to light other economic and social efforts.
Adding to this enveloping shadow is the growing lack of accessible information about drug violence in Mexico. The country remains the deadliest place in Latin America for journalists and one of the most dangerous in the world. This has severely affected the ability to check the government’s crime statistics, which have been notoriously manipulated over the years. A recent post on insightcrime.org demonstrates the unevenness of government crime statistics, “Some newspapers, which began counting the organized crime-related murders during Calderon’s administration, continue their own homicide tallies. Reforma said in mid-March that the “drug-related” homicides were higher in the first three months under Peña Nieto than the last three months of Calderon. Milenio had numbers that were consistent with the current administration’s. La Jornada registered significantly lower levels than the others but said there was an upward trend.” The shadow on information has also swallowed government agencies—the Procudaria General de la Republica (PGR) has not developed a reliable database to track kidnappings and disappearances.
However, the most revealing piece of data comes from Mexican citizens themselves. According to the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) 2013 victimization survey, the net result of the past twelve months is that Mexicans say they feel more unsafe than in previous years. The darkness of drug violence appears to have grown only deeper.