How Mexico’s Next President Can Cut Murders Fast

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Now that he has won power, Mexico’s President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto has to deliver on his promise to reduce violence — and quickly. Analyst Alejandro Hope has a few suggestions for the incoming leader.

The elections have come. Peña Nieto won, with a smaller margin than expected. The PRI remains without a majority in Congress.

In other news, in the last 24 hours [as of July 3] the following things happened:

– Four people were killed at a wake in Torreon.
– In Monterrey, four men died in a confrontation between criminals and the police.
– In Gomez Palacio, Durango, five plastic bags full of human remains were found.
– Two police officers died in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, after the detonation of a car bomb in front of the house of the state’s public security secretary.

Life goes on after the elections. Violence too: every day, an average of 55 to 60 new preliminary investigations for homicide are opened (to which one must add the killings that are not registered by the Public Ministry). Three to four kidnappings are reported every day, on average (and many more are not reported). More or less half a million people suffer some type of extortion in person (not on the telephone) every year, according to statistics from the National Survey on Victimization and Perception of Public Security (ENVIPE) of the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI).

Enrique Peña Nieto, the winner of the July 1 elections, has set as his objective to reduce violence “quickly.” It’s a laudable intention, but up to now he hasn’t told us how he plans to do it. The ideas that he has presented will take effect in the medium term, if at all. Forming a marginally effective national gendarmerie will take no less than two years, and converting it into a reasonably efficient body several years more (what’s more, it is intended to offer security in rural zones, so it would do nothing to help any of the cases listed above). Expanding the Federal Police from 35,000 to 50,000 officers will take at least the duration of his six-year term. Enhancing intelligence capacity is necessarily a slow process: an informant may not provide anything of value for months or years (to say nothing of financial intelligence: a single case can take two or three years to build). To make the Public Ministry effective is a task for multiple administrations, and consolidating judicial and penal reform is going to take at least the rest of the decade.

I doubt very much that Mexican voters have the patience to wait for the culmination of these processes. After a few massacres, Calderon’s war will become Peña Nieto’s war: after the honeymoon, the dead, the kidnapped, and the extorted will start to build up on his account. With an additional difficulty: today the federal government can, with a certain plausibility, argue that the responsibility for the violence falls partially on the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) state governments. Part of the electorate makes the distinction between the federal and the local (see the election results in Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon). The new government doesn’t have this luxury: given that the PRI will control 23 states on top of the presidency, almost everything that does or does not happen at the local level will fall in the pocket of the party and, by association, on Peña Nieto.

In consequence, if he doesn’t want to lose the electorate that voted him into office in a stampede, the new president will need a policy to reduce violence in the short term. I don’t know what Peña Nieto’s team is thinking about the specifics, but here are a few ideas:

– Establish an anti-massacre policy, based on principles of focused deterrence. This can be reduced to a) establishing an order of priority in the response of the state to various types of violent crime; b) communicating this order of priority to criminal groups, and c) attacking through all available legal means the first criminal group that commits the prioritized acts (see more details here, here, and here).

– Creating safe zones in highly violent municipalities. Using the model of the PRONAF zone in Ciudad Juarez, authorities could establish areas free of homicide, kidnapping, and extortion in various places (Monterrey, Torreon, Veracruz, etc.). This implies the placement of various checkpoints, designating a special group for intelligence work, installing security cameras, establishing a mechanism for businesses and residents to report crimes, etc. These safe areas could be expanded gradually.

– Designing a national anti-extortion strategy that would include the establishment of special units to combat the practice in the Federal Police and Attorney General’s Office (and state governments, where possible) and the use of tactics like these.

– Promoting the reporting of kidnapping to the Federal Police. With all its faults, the Federal Police have a much higher capacity and more experience than the state police forces to investigate kidnappings, dismantle groups, negotiate rescues and bring victims home alive. Maybe it won’t deter many kidnappings, but it could reduce a good number of homicides.

– Increase patrols on the main highways. This could be achieved in a reasonably simple manner by temporarily reassigning personnel from other parts of the Federal Police to the Division of Regional Security (the organ of the force responsible, among other things, for security on the highways) and launching an operation similar to CONAGO II.

– Change the policy of interdiction of drugs on the southern frontier: the current policy (forcing private flights from Central and South America to land in Tapachula or Cozumel), generates, in addition to very negative impacts in Central America, a lengthening of land routes, with negligible effects on the volume of cocaine trafficked. The landing requirements could be eliminated and land enforcement increased on the isthmus of Tehuantepec (the effect would be to reduce the length of land trafficking routes in Mexico).

– Eliminate the visa requirement for nationals of some or all Central American countries, on the condition that they enter by air. This could reduce the flow of people on particularly risky routes and modes of transport (cargo trains, for example) and potentially reduce the incidence of kidnapping and extortion of migrants.

– Study the gang truce in El Salvador and the process of paramilitary demobilization in Colombia. I’m not saying similar methods should necessarily be applied in Mexico, but I believe that in both cases there are important lessons about the peace process. In one of these cases, there could be an important legal instrument to help bring members of criminal groups to justice.

These ideas could be good or bad, viable or crazy, but they have one thing in common: all could have an impact in the short term (and there are many more that could have similar effects). Beyond the indispensable institutional reforms, the new government needs to deliver quick results. And quick means a year or two, not three or six. If this doesn’t happen, and if there is not a palpable improvement in the security climate in the short term, the massive support could become a massive rejection by the time we go back to the voting booth.

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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