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Peña Nieto Promises Carrot and Stick for Criminals

  • Written by Dudley Althaus
  • Wednesday, 13 February 2013
President Peña Nieto President Peña Nieto

President Enrique Peña Nieto has flashed just a little more flesh of his long-promised plans for combating Mexico's plague of criminal slaughter, revealing plans for social programs to stop young people turning to crime.

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Peña Nieto, who took office 10 weeks ago, announced on February 13 in the largely peaceful industrial city of Aguascalientes that Mexican officials, “Must put special emphasis on prevention, because we can’t keep only employing more sophisticated weapons, better equipment, more police, a higher presence of the armed forces in the country as the only form of combating organized crime,” Excelsior reported.

To that end, Peña has ordered nine different government ministries to coordinate spending on social and public works projects in 250 towns and cities -- about a tenth of Mexico's municipalities -- to provide youngsters with alternatives to gang-banging.

The $9 billion effort, to be coordinated by yet another inter-agency commission, will focus on poorer neighborhoods in gangster-ridden communities across the north, as well as in Mexico City and nearly all the state capitals.

Joining Peña Nieto at the podium, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio said the actions would provide public works jobs, enhanced treatment of drug addicts, programs aimed at helping single mothers and a campaign promoting peaceful social interactions.

Officials touted the speeches as a dramatic departure from the military-led anti-crime campaign of former President Felipe Calderon, which has claimed more than 60,000 lives and left another 25,000 people missing. The violence has continued apace under Peña, with a government tally of some 2,500 gang-related killings since December 1.

But Mexican media, which have largely cooperated with the new administration's desire to play down the ongoing killings, seemed underwhelmed by the announcement. Though the initiative played on front pages, few of the country's pundits commented on it one way or the other. And it quickly disappeared from news websites.

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Peña Nieto hopes to break free from what many Mexicans have seen as Calderon's military madness in taking on the deeply entrenched criminal groups.

In the long run, more spending on long-neglected communities -- in a wealthy nation where about half the people remain trapped in poverty -- may help him do that. Peña is right in pointing out that poverty and lack of opportunities provides ready recruits for the gangs.

But rather than a bold departure from the bloody past, Peña's initiative looks to be a national roll-out of Calderon's much-criticized strategy in Ciudad Juarez, employed following the massacre of 15 innocent high school students and parents at a house party there three years ago.

Juarez's gangland killings, which by some counts had made it the most violent city in the world, have plummeted in the past 18 months.

(See InSight Crime's special, Juarez: After the War)

But many critics contend that the city's relative peace has more to do with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman's apparent victory in the struggle for control of Juarez's narcotics smuggling routes than with federal officials' softer turn, with increased social spending.

In fact, both carrots and sticks have likely improved Juarez's fortunes.

Pressured by the presence of as many as 10,000 federal troops and police, the gangs bloodied themselves into exhaustion since starting their war in early 2008. But higher spending on parks, health care and schools improved conditions in some of the city's more marginal barrios. Employment also has ticked up in the city's low-wage export industries as US markets improve.

While copying Juarez's social strategy can't hurt Peña's pacification effort, it's uncertain how much it will help on its own.

In the probably lengthy meantime, combat troops will remain on the battlefield, and the already well-manned gangs will pummel one another at will.

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