Last week, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto responded to a growing swell of opposition to his government with a wide-ranging reform proposal, which would involve a massive reorganization of the police and new checks on executive behavior.
The most significant of the police reforms is the so-called “mando unico," or "single command" proposal, which would do away with Mexico’s roughly 1,800 municipal police departments. The erstwhile municipal units would presumably be placed under the centralized control of 32 state police departments.
Peña Nieto also promised a series of initiatives to spur economic growth in Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacan, four poor southern states that lag behind much of the rest of the nation and have seen some of the worst recent outbreaks of violence. Businesses operating in these states would be able to count on tax breaks, subsidized financing for development projects, and greater government support when competing in export markets.
Peña Nieto’s program also included provisions for greater checks and oversight at all levels of government. Citizens groups would have greater capacity to inspect government contracts. Additionally, the federal government would have greater leeway in absorbing authority from dysfunctional municipal governments.
Peña Nieto’s announcement comes on the heels of a series of security and political crises, the most notorious of which is the alleged massacre of scores of student protesters in Iguala, Guerrero. Allegedly working in tandem with members of the Guerreros Unidos, the mayor and his wife stand accused of orchestrating the students’ disappearance and murder.
Other crises include new reports suggesting that a shootout in the state of Mexico earlier this year -- which left dozens of alleged kidnappers dead during a rescue operation -- was little more than a mass execution by the army. Peña Nieto’s stature has been further eroded by revelations that his wife acquired a multi-million-dollar house from a business that later won a multi-billion-dollar train concession from Peña Nieto’s government.
InSight Crime Analysis
With Peña Nieto’s opponents smelling blood in the water, the president's proposal may be dead on arrival.
In light of these crises, Peña Nieto suddenly looked like the stereotypical dinosaur of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), with allegations of corruption and apparent disregard for mass killings involving the security forces and government officials. His initiative -- which followed weeks of silence from the Presidency, occasionally broken by a few ineffectual statements -- is an attempt to repair the damage to Peña Nieto's image.
It's true that Peña Nieto pushed through some significant legislative accomplishments -- especially economic ones -- at the beginning of his term. But while this new agenda undoubtedly contains some wise provisions, it's unclear whether the plan has any chance of moving forward.
One big problem is that the so-called Pact for Mexico -- the tri-partisan agenda that guided much of the congressional reform -- has collapsed, and there is no guarantee of support from opposition parties. With Peña Nieto’s opponents smelling blood in the water, the president's proposal may be dead on arrival. Should anything pass, it may well be a watered-down imitation.
Yet it is not even that clear that Peña Nieto's proposals would really do much to bring about a safer Mexico. The most controversial of his ideas is the mando unico. This isn't even the first time Mexico has considered such a change: President Felipe Calderon proposed a similar measure in 2010, and continued to advocate for a mando unico for much of his presidency. Various states and metro areas have debated such a move, and some, like Nuevo Leon, have moved ahead with its implementation. And Peña Nieto himself has previously called for states to pursue such a model.
At first glance, the logic behind the mando unico proposal is unassailable. Municipal police departments are often dens of corruption, with entire forces at the service of a local criminal boss. Doing away with the municipal police could theoretically make it harder for criminal groups to secure the support of vast swaths of the state.
Mexican leaders have often promised institutional reorganizations as the magic bullet to a safer country, but the reality almost always falls short.
But there are several problems with that facile conclusion. One is that as bad as the municipal police can be, federal and state police officers are often just as guilty of corruption. And that makes sense: there is no inherent reason that an officer paid by a city government would be more susceptible to a crooked payoff than one paid by a state government. Phasing out municipal police departments may look like a way to attack the problem at its source, but granting the state authority over local policing does nothing to alter the incentive structure that has led so many Mexican police to work for organized crime.
Neither is it clear who would staff these new, larger state police forces. If there is no new recruitment drive and the reform is only a change of uniform for the existing officers, then the case for the mando unico is undermined still further. Similar mistakes have crippled past police reforms.
Broadly speaking, Peña Nieto’s instincts behind his reform proposal are correct. Mexico has a serious problem with corruption and weak security institutions, and his changes reflect that understanding, at least indirectly. But they are too responsive to a single unusual incident -- the Iguala massacre -- and they fail to address the root causes of institutional weakness and corruption.
Mexican leaders have often promised institutional reorganizations as the magic bullet to a safer country, but the reality almost always falls short. It would be foolish to assume anything would be different today.