Calderon Adviser Falls Short in Defending Boss’ Security Policy

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A lengthy defense of President Calderon’s security policies has relied on wishy-washy cultural theories to explain Mexico’s failure to confront highly violent drug gangs, rather than addressing the failings of the Mexican leader’s administration.

The sprawling piece in Nexos magazine was written by Joaquin Villalobos, a former Salvadoran guerrilla who has emerged in recent years as one of Calderon’s security advisers. He sets out 10 “myths” of the drug war, as well as five truths that, he argues, must be accepted.

The piece covers a great deal of ground over the course of more than 10,000 words, so it’s not surprising that its insightful observations are mixed in with some weaker ones. In the former category, Villalobos offers a cogent response to calls for a pact with the narcos; an effective rejoinder to the idea that the government should be the sole repository of blame for the violence in Mexico (though if one interprets Villalobos as arguing that the government has no responsibility, it becomes much more difficult to support his position); and, most of all, an emphasis on the oft-overlooked need for institutional improvement.

But despite these elements, there is much to disagree with in Villalobos’ lengthy consideration of Mexico’s anti-crime policies.

Perhaps the piece’s most glaring problem is Villalobos’ focus on Mexicans’ supposed cultural aversion to conflict, which he claims prevents them from supporting a robust response to the security problems. In his telling, Mexicans’ longstanding preference for negotiating their way out of problems rather than confronting them directly is responsible for the existence of criminal gangs, and has made it impossible to marshal the collective force of the law-abiding masses.

One problem with this argument is the source; for a member of the administration to publicly blame the population at large for the ill effects of government policy is inappropriate, aside from being politically tone-deaf. Beyond that, cultural critiques from whatever source are particularly unhelpful for a number of reasons: they are unverifiable, because they are not based on data but rather on impressions and anecdotes; and they earn acceptance through rote repetition rather than careful analysis (Villalobos, for instance, bases his cultural generalization on a recent book of Jorge Castañeda’s, who in turn borrowed many observations from authors like Octavio Paz and Manuel Gamio). In addition to this, even if the critique is on target, changing a country’s culture is difficult to the point of futility, so it’s not clear what the policy implications would be.

Rather than worrying about correcting or overcoming something so amorphous and unidentifiable as culture, officials would do much better to analyze specific institutional bottlenecks, such as the inability of the Mexican justice system to process cases efficiently. Thorough institutional reform is a painstaking process, but it is more likely to work than changing an entire culture via public haranguing.

Villalobos goes on to dismiss the idea that Mexico should consider the security landscape from the criminal’s perspective, which is an odd argument, given that in any conflict it is a useful exercise to put yourself in your adversary’s shoes in order to predict their next move.

He also criticises dissuasive approaches to crime reduction such as that put forward by UCLA criminologist Mark Kleiman in an article in Foreign Affairs last year. In it, Kleiman proposed identifying the most violent of Mexico’s criminal networks through an elaborate scoring system, and then targeting them for extinction by coordinating law-enforcement activities in both the US and Mexico.

There are certainly elements of Kleiman’s strategy that are unconvincing; as Villalobos indicates, he spends very little time on issues of institutional quality and corruption, which are huge obstacles to any security improvement in Mexico. But Kleiman is certainly correct in his belief that the incentives currently driving violence in Mexico need to be reversed, and that smart policy-makers should be thinking about ways to encourage less aggressive modes of conduct. In fact, Villalobos’ call for stronger institutions is, in a broad sense, just the sort of dissuasive tactic that he criticizes: the theory behind it is that if criminals have a greater chance of being imprisoned and less ability to corrupt security agencies, they will naturally respond with more defensive, less violent operations.

One can also fault Villalobos’ casual dismissal of the calls to concentrate state resources on crimes like extortion and kidnapping at the expense of drug trafficking. While the latter crime is the cash cow for organized crime, the first two necessarily target civilians, while drug trafficking does not. Exortion and kidnapping both exploded in recent years, though some sources argue that the rate of extortion has now stabilized. Furthermore, insofar as they target the successful, these crimes act as an disincentive on prosperity and entrepreneurship. Contrary to what Villalobos claims, if Mexico had a drug trafficking industry that was the same size but dedicated exclusively to moving contraband, the country would be a much less violent place.

Finally, the largest problem with the article is that it gives the impression that there is no need to make any real changes to Calderon’s strategy. This is not surprising considering the inevitable bias of the author, who is defending a policy he helped devise.

But for people not in the business of defending Calderon, any 10,000-word discussion of his security policies needs to include one or two on its failings. With a six-fold increase in drug murders since Calderon’s first full year in office, any article that does not ask difficult questions of the president is divorced from reality.

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