10 Suggestions for Peña Nieto’s First Year in Office

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Mexico security analyst Alejandro Hope lays out his top 10 suggestions for the first year of incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto, who takes office on December 1. 

Carlos Puig, in a wonderful article published in Milenio, says:

I’ve heard several members of Enrique Peña Nieto’s transition team speak about the necessity of winning some “early victories” with regards to security, of showing dramatic reductions in the levels of violence in cities or certain predetermined areas, almost like some kind of pilot program. It won’t be easy.

He is right; it won’t be easy. But nor is it impossible. There are certain measures they can take to get quick results. I don’t know what kind of actions the transition team is considering to achieve these “early victories,” but to contribute to their planning process, I’d like to submit a few ideas:

1) Prioritize a subsection of violent crimes: This requires defining a small group of very violent incidents, like massacres with 15 victims or more, assassinations of politicians or journalists, car bombs, etc. The government could announce that the Attorney General’s Office will automatically take on these cases and give them the highest priority (in cooperation with other federal entities), and apply collective sanctions to the groups responsible (where it can be identified), in addition to punishing those directly involved.

2) Focus on the groups that generate the most fear: The administration could announce that, during its first year, it will place an emphasis on the organization that the public most fears according to opinion polls to be carried out in January 2013 (or, if it didn’t want to announce this publicly, it could let it be known through back channels). This would have the effect of putting a tax on one of the main features of criminal groups: their reputation for brutality. This would not depend on individual acts, but on a repeated pattern of public violence. It would make it harder for cartels to “heat up the plaza” of their rivals or attempt other kinds of intimidation.  This strategy could be implemented on a national or regional scale.

3) Establish “safe zones” in select municipalities: Following the model of Ciudad Juarez’s PRONAF zone, the administration could set up areas of heightened security in some cities (Monterrey? Torreon?), with security checkpoints, cameras, panic buttons, and so on. It could also set up more streamlined methods of reporting crimes, setting up another telephone line in addition to [anonymous reporting hotline] 089, for instance. These areas could gradually be expanded over the course of several months.

4) Clean up high-risk prisons: The prison system is a complete disaster, but it exhibits degrees of chaos. The most serious incidents (mass escapes, uprisings which end in massacres, attacks on prison personnel) have occurred in a relatively small number of prison facilities. It might be worthwhile to put together a comprehensive risk index and intervene in the 10 or 15 prisons with the highest score. These interventions, coordinated by the federal government and state authorities, could include, among other things: prioritized transfers of federal prisoners (if this process hasn’t been concluded by December), increases in the number of prison guards, accelerated vetting processes, reductions in prison population (through transfers), random checks of cells and common areas, guaranteed protection for staff inside and outside the prisons, improved prison conditions with the oversight of human rights commissions, strengthened monitoring systems and the establishment of security perimeters around prisons.

5) Establish safe highway corridors: Traveling via highway has turned into a high risk activity in much of the country. The administration could identify the 15 or 20 most dangerous highway routes and reinforce the presence of Federal Police and the armed forces along these, in addition to encouraging cargo trucks to travel in convoys or installing security cameras at particularly dangerous points.

6) Pick two or three urban areas for large-scale interventions: Following the example of the “We are all Juarez” program, the government could launch massive pacification efforts in the cities most affected by violence. These operations could include: a.) a surge in federal security forces, b.) increases in the amount of resources allocated to justice and police reform, c.) an array of effective social programs more or less proven to work (like extended school days), d.) select violence prevention efforts (as outlined in bullet point number 3), and e.) partnerships with civil society, like the Coalition of Security in Ciudad Juarez. I believe an operation on this scale is underway in Acapulco, but it could also be helpful in places like La Laguna, Monterrey, or some city in Tamaulipas (Nuevo Laredo? Reynosa?).

7) Implement a more focused crackdown on kidnapping: In the five states most affected by kidnapping, it may be worthwhile to reinforce the state anti-kidnapping units and allocate special federal police units in these states (in some cases they are likely already on the scene). This should be widely publicized, in order to generate a sense of greater risk for potential kidnappers.

8) Begin undercover anti-extortion operations: The Federal Police or other security forces could set up false flag businesses in areas where extortion payments are common. Upon being approached by would-be extortionists, they could arrest them. After the capture authorities could widely publicize the incident and the circumstances of the arrest, and claim that there are hundreds of similar ongoing operations around the country (even if this isn’t the case). This could create stronger disincentives and reduce the level of extortion.

9) Crack down on vehicle theft: Either the federal government or state governments could provide a small sample of vehicles (the five most commonly stolen car models, for instance) with a kind of insurance allowing their owners to obtain a seized stolen vehicle if theirs is taken. This would reduce the demand for stolen parts as well as car thefts for the purpose of taking them apart (as well as the extortion of junkyards and mechanics). With the help of state and municipality officials, the administration could also launch aggressive auto registration or re-registration programs in particularly violent municipalities.

10) Create a “prize” for state governments: The government could create a funding grant which would be provided to the three states which show the most significant improvement in perceptions of citizen security, as measured by the National Victimization and Perception of Public Security Poll (ENVIPE) administered by [Mexico’s statistics agency] INEGI or another institution. 

It is worth noting that these ideas are not finished; they are just sketches that require several rounds of refinement to become even close to applicable. But it seems to me that perhaps they can be useful for those responsible for security in the transition team. If they are, great. If not, then so be it.

PS: Here the famous politician’s syllogism of the British sitcom series Yes, Prime Minister seems relevant: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this.”

*Translated and reprinted with permission from Alejandro Hope, of Plata o Plomo, a blog on the politics and economics of drugs and crime published by Animal Politico. Read the Spanish original here.

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