Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto

A year into President Enrique Peña Nieto's tenure in Mexico, the country’s criminal landscape is largely the same as prior to his arrival, though a number of modifications suggest the beginnings of a new evolution in both the government and the criminals.

Since taking power December 1, 2012, Peña Nieto has pursued a series of policy changes that contrast with his predecessor Felipe Calderon who staked his administration's reputation on the fight against organized crime. Some of these shifts are more cosmetic than real, and the overall policy of using the military and federal police to quell hotspots continues unabated. Whether as a consequence of the policy shifts or of other independent factors, Mexico’s organized crime groups have also undergone a series of subtle, though distinct, shifts. 

Few Real Changes in the Government’s Approach

Perhaps the most striking difference between Calderon and Peña Nieto is in the amount of focus the government places on highlighting its efforts. Throughout the Calderon administration, public security was the foremost issue of public interest. Even during the economic crisis, when polls showed the economy outweighed violence as an issue of public concern, the president and his top advisors made organized crime their foremost task, and celebrated their many takedowns of prominent capos.

Under Peña Nieto, the presentation of the security policy has been much more subdued. The press releases trumpeting successes are less frequent, the speeches with bellicose rhetoric have grown quite rare, and none of the current security officials enjoy the profile that Garcia Luna did. Peña Nieto spends most of his public appearances dealing with other issues, particularly in the economic realm. The frequency of takedowns of kingpins has slowed, and the attention given to those that do occur is more muted.

As a result, international headlines detailing the bloodshed in Mexico, which fed a public perception of the nation as something akin to a failed state, have subsided. Unlike Calderon, who drew comparisons to US prohibition agent Eliot Ness early in his tenure, most of the coverage surrounding Peña Nieto has focused on his reform efforts. A more balanced picture of Mexican security appears to be emerging, and the protagonists of these frontal battles have been able to focus on better coordination between agencies rather than squirming for airtime.

Behind the scenes, however, the strategy to use federal forces in troubled areas continues to be the central means that the government is dealing with organized crime. The army and the navy are spread throughout the country, including in the exact places where Calderon famously sent them at the beginning of his administration. Many former military officers continue to head up local police units. Federal police have an equally large support and sometimes primary role as the country continues to struggle with how to reshape its municipal and state forces.   

Other proposed shifts have become sideshows. Throughout his campaign and after his election, for instance, Peña Nieto promised to create a civilian-military hybrid gendarmerie that would ease the burden on the federal agencies that led the drug war under Calderon. Initially, the gendarmerie was to be a force of 40,000, with a military character, but under civilian control. While the proposal succeeded in securing attention for Peña Nieto’s ideas, the precise operational goal of the gendarmerie was never clear. The plan was to focus the gendarmerie on rural areas, but it was not clear why a new federal force was needed (rather than, say, expanding the Federal Police).

Since his inauguration, Peña Nieto’s team has scaled back the ambition of the gendarmerie program. They decreased the number of new agents from 40,000 to 5,000, and announced that rather than operating as a new unit, it would be a subset of the Federal Police. The gendarmerie has not yet gone operational, though the government has begun training and recruitment, and has pegged summer 2014 as its start date.

Another adjustment to the institutional apparatus came in the disappearance of the Department of Public Security (known as the SSP for its initials in Spanish) as a cabinet agency. The SSP was folded into the Interior Ministry. This marked a symbolic end to the Calderon era, since the SSP was controlled by his foremost security official Genaro Garcia Luna. The move also had the practical effect of centralizing control of security policy to a much greater degree, and returning the Interior Ministry to its traditionally preeminent role among domestic cabinet agencies.

Trends in Violence, Criminality

In terms of homicides, the news is good. According to preliminary numbers from the National Public Security System (SNSP), lethal violence in Mexico has declined in the first year of the Peña Nieto presidency. From a monthly average of more than 1,800 intentional homicides during the last year of the Calderon administration, the national figure has dropped to 1,550 this year, a decline of roughly 15 percent. According to statistician Diego Valle-Jones, the annualized murder rate dropped from a high in 2011 of 22 per 100,000 residents to less than 15 as of October 2013. (See Valle-Jones graphic below)mexico homicides 2007 2013

But while the rates of murder have slipped, those of kidnapping and extortion have gone in the opposite direction, continuing an unfortunate tendency dating back years. According to Valle-Jones, the annualized rate of reported kidnappings has hovered around 1.5 per 100,000 residents under Peña Nieto, surpassing the worst rates registered under Calderon.

The distribution of gang warfare has also shifted. During the Calderon administration, Juarez was the epicenter of Mexican violence. The trend peaked in 2010, with more than 3,000 murders in the border town, and thousands more throughout Juarez's home state, Chihuahua. While Chihuahua and Juarez remain violent areas, the unparalleled wave of murders has slowed, and both the city and the state have been replaced by others as the loci of bloodshed.

The pattern is similar in some of the other northern states that most suffered under Calderon. Nuevo Leon is set to finish 2013 with roughly half the intentional homicides it recorded a year prior. In Tamaulipas, the number of murders has likewise dropped by around 50 percent.

Other states, however, have seen a reverse trend. According to data from the SNSP, Guerrero has suffered almost 50 percent more murders during the Peña Nieto presidency than has Chihuahua, despite Chihuahua being a slightly larger state. Jalisco, home to the nation’s second largest city, Guadalajara, has also turned into one of the nation’s most prominent sites of violence.

Recently, Michoacan has emerged as the state with arguably the most alarming security crisis, though more because of government dysfunction than a stratospheric murder rate. As reported by InSight Crime, Michoacan is home to the most prominent vigilante groups to emerge in recent years, which have eaten into the legitimacy of the government and added another element of uncertainty to the situation. Local criminal groups, virulently opposed to the vigilante groups, have engaged in increasingly harmful tactics to maintain their control over the region, including blocking food deliveries to towns linked to the vigilante groups and blowing up local power stations.

The Criminal Chessboard

Given the problems in Michoacan described above, it is unsurprising that the dominant gang in the state, the Knights Templar, currently rank as the most significant villains in Mexico’s criminal underworld. While the group has limited geographical reach and has shown little interest in the kind of aggressive expansion that sparks spirals of violence, it has an unusual capacity to affect civil society and penetrate government institutions.

SEE ALSO: Knights Templar Profile

While many gangs celebrate their refusal to engage in extortion, for the Knights it is a significant element of their modus operandi. Rather than merely trafficking, the group works to foment a more holistic view of its role, often claiming to act on behalf of the people of Michoacan. The group has forged links with untold numbers of local politicians, including Julio Cesar Godoy, a fugitive former congressman and the brother of an ex-governor. Knights' leader Servando Gomez, alias "La Tuta," also recently claimed his group was contacted by Senator Luisa Maria Calderon, the sister of Felipe Calderon, during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 2011, though she denied the charge.

In contrast, the Zetas, widely viewed as the most dangerous criminal group of the Calderon era, appear to have lost force, with their two top leaders, Miguel Angel Treviño, alias "Z40" and Heriberto Lazcano, alias "Z3," captured and killed, respectively, in the past 16 months. The arrest of Treviño and the firefight death of Lazcano followed a series of captures of other high-level operators, leaving the group responsible for some of the most infamous attacks during the Calderon administration severely weakened.

SEE ALSO: Zetas Profile

Should it continue apace, the decline of the Zetas promises to open up opportunities for rivals in much of northern and northeastern Mexico. Much of this space may be filled by local offshoots, as has been the case in, for instance, Torreon. Another likely winner is a renewed Gulf Cartel, whose longtime alliance with the Zetas ended in 2010.

But the biggest beneficiary of a weakened Zetas is likely to be the Sinaloa Cartel, which, along with its leader Joaquin Guzman, alias "El Chapo," remains the strongest group in the country. The Zetas’ alliance with the Beltran Leyva Organization has helped the latter group retain areas of control in their native Sinaloa, and the Zetas have served as a bulwark against the Sinaloa Cartel’s attempts to take Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, which would give them de facto control over most of the border.

In this sense, the continued strength of El Chapo's group represents one of the most important examples of continuity from Calderon to Peña Nieto. It is also one of the most worrying, because any crime policy that leaves the Sinaloa Cartel on its feet would seem to suffer from a severely limited ambition.