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Peña Nieto's Best (and Worst) Ideas for Mexico's Security

A new report takes on Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s security policy, offering a detailed rundown of the objectives and limitations of the new leader’s plan.

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The report, "Peña Nieto's Piñata: The Promise and Pitfalls of Mexico's New Security Policy against Organized Crime," comes from Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution. The author, a veteran analyst of criminal violence in Mexico, outlines the problems facing Peña Nieto as he assumed the presidency, and highlights the differences between his policy and that of the man he replaced, Felipe Calderon.

According to Felbab-Brown, the Calderon government, which left office in December, was justified in its desire to reduce the power and impunity of the most notorious criminal groups, but "its preoccupation on high-value targeting, lack of prioritization, and lack of operational clarity" delivered a jolt of anarchy to what had previously been a much more stable criminal environment. The result is the wave of violence and chaos that swept the nation over the past five years, and that has only subsided in the past year or so.

In response to the circumstances inherited from his predecessor, Peña Nieto called for a series of philosophical changes, such as an emphasis on violence reduction, prevention, and dissuasion of violent crime. He also promised to build a new federal police force, which he termed the gendarmerie, to be composed of 10,000 officers and deployed primarily in violent rural areas. Additionally, Peña Nieto pledged to deepen some of the policy goals initially established under Calderon, including continued implementation of the 2008 judicial reforms, pursuing a centralization of municipal police forces known as the "mando unico," and complementing security measures with social programs that attack the root causes of organized crime.

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On paper, Peña Nieto's ideas amount to an ambitious reform package, which, while it might not touch on the most fundamental elements of Mexico's strategy (such as drug prohibition and collaboration with the US), could dramatically alter the playing field.

The problem, as Felbab-Brown points out, is that Peña Nieto is facing both practical and philosophical obstacles in pursuing these reforms: he has some good ideas that will be hard to pull off, and he has some bad ideas, in which Mexico would benefit from his falling short.

Among the good ideas, Peña Nieto's belief in violence reduction and crime prevention is a welcome development, especially in light of Calderon's lack of expressed interest in the same subjects. However, even though this new approach is worth applauding, it's not clear how the Peña Nieto government will move towards actual, tangible improvements. The foremost models for Peña Nieto’s dissuasive approach come from gang violence programs in American cities, such as High Point, North Carolina and Boston.

These US programs were hugely successful. However, Mexico's security context has little in common with the aforementioned cities. Not only does Mexico have a far greater number of variables influencing the situation, its violent hotspots are far worse than anything Boston or High Point experienced, and the number of gangs responsible for the bloodshed are far more numerous.

There is also a big difference between the government attempting to better assert its authority in individual cities, and attempting to do so at a nationwide level -- especially in a country as large as Mexico. Nationwide, there are more agencies to be taken into account, and many of these are riddled with corrupt agents, further undermining the government's ability to deliver an effective deterrent to violent activities. That doesn’t mean incorporating dissuasive elements into Mexico's crime policy is a poor idea, but rather that Peña Nieto has a ways to go from having a good idea to actually bringing about positive results. 

As Felbab-Brown notes, the same disclaimer cannot be made for certain other ideas that form part of Peña Nieto’s initial strategy. Some ideas are defective in their basic conception -- notably, the plan to create a gendarmerie. The report notes that creating an effective 10,000-man force from scratch will take far longer than Peña Nieto’s six years in office, meaning it's a long-term remedy, not something that will reduce violence in the short-term. And if Peña Nieto means to pull troops from the military to staff the gendarmerie, the new agency will likely suffer from the same limitations seen in the armed forces -- lack of investigative training, a surfeit of aggressiveness among civilians, and so on.

Moreover, it's not clear whether the gendarmerie will be tasked with doing something that other police bodies aren't already capable of doing. There is little reason to think that either the gendarmerie or the mando unico will do much to detract from the incentives that lead police to work with drug traffickers far too often. All of this makes betting the future on a single new agency coupled with a reorganization of the existing forces a shaky proposition.

The Brookings report is not without its positive notes -- Felbab-Brown takes into account the dramatic improvements in security in Juarez and Tijuana, and the potential for lasting police reform in such regions. Overall, however, the report paints a bleak picture, leaving the reader pessimistic. This is appropriate. Mexico’s problems are deeply rooted, and even the best of Peña Nieto’s ideas will struggle to have an immediate impact.

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