Mexico’s Peña Nieto Plan Glosses Over Reality

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Though a casual observer might view President Enrique Peña Nieto’s strategy for combating gangsters as much the same as his predecessor’s — and his five-year development plan has some similarities to the previous administration’s — Mexico’s leader and his aides insist that things are much changed and far more hopeful these days, despite signs to the contrary. 

The plan, which was unveiled last week (and is available for download here), outlines security issues in stark, clear terms. 

“The logic of the drug trafficking organizations changed and led to their growth,” it says, in a tone rarely exercised since Peña Nieto’s inauguration in December. “This increased their earnings and their ability to corrupt authorities.”

The report blames Calderon’s “frontal assault,” which led to “power voids” and violent conflicts in key cities, and paints Calderon’s efforts as disorganized, ineffective and counterproductive.

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio reiterated this message last week. 

“Calderon sent the troops in without objectives, clear strategy and coordination,” Osorio told Insight Crime and other foreign media in Mexico City last Friday. “If we don’t have objectives, why are we going? To do the same?”

“We have to establish order,” Osorio said.

But is Peña Nieto that different?

The plan also adopts much the same language as Calderon, at least in the final years of his administration, in painting the security threat as a crisis of poverty that can be best solved with more jobs, better pay and welcoming streets.

“The priority is clear,” the five-year plan says, “safeguard the lives, liberty and property of Mexicans.”

Security policy also resembles that of his predecessor. Last week, Peña Nieto’s six-month old government felt compelled last week to dispatch troops to quell brewing civil war in western Michoacan state, the same as Felipe Calderon did back in December 2006. The government continues to target gang bosses, much as happened under Calderon. And the violence continues largely unchecked in many places as before.

To be sure, there are differences. 

For instance, the new federal offensive in Michoacan is being coordinated directly by the Interior Ministry, the once feared but effective political agency that was dismantled twelve years ago by Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, and is now being being rebuilt under Peña Nieto.

Gang bosses continue to be arrested — 50 of 122 targets taken down at last count — but they aren’t being perp-walked or their names and importance presented to the public so as to not make them heroes to susceptible youths, Osorio said last week.

Gangland killings have declined by nearly a fifth compared to last year, Osorio and other officials claim. And the actual number of those who went missing since the violence exploded is but a fraction of the 25,000 or so reported by the Calderon government.

InSight Crime Analysis

Obviously, Peña Nieto and company inherited a major security headache from Calderon. Who can blame them for trying to deal with it by reorganizing the troops and changing the conversation? That’s politics everywhere.

However, if the fighting leaves thousands dead in the years to come — as is expected, even if there is a precipitous drop in homicides — the subtle details about troop deployments, centralized decision-making processes, and social programs will not matter much to the public at large.

As Peña Nieto’s own five-year plan points out, the gangsters had been allowed to accumulate their power through decades of inattention from Mexico City. Dismantling that power will take just as long.

For much of that time Mexico was run like a family business by Peña’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But Fox, of Calderon’s conservative National Action Party (PAN), largely turned a blind eye to the threat after winning elections in 2000.

The difference was that Calderon had the temerity to take on the gangs that had become de-facto rulers of communities along the border lands, down both Mexico’s coasts and in the marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine producing corners of Mexico’s interior. 

Deeply dependent upon his military’s prowess and Washington’s blessings, however, Calderon left office far short of success: while numerous kingpins were killed or captured, more than 65,000 people were murdered, an unknown number went missing, the drug trade and gangs were left largely intact and, in fact, grew in number.

There were other reasons things got worse. The cooperation between various federal security forces, and between them and those of local and state governments, was very much like herding cats under Calderon. US agencies’ preference for working with both the Mexican Navy’s special forces and the federal police stoked age-old animosity with the army, the biggest dog in the fight.

Yet, while all of this is true, there’s been a worrisome tendency among Mexico’s current rulers to gloss over the problems they face, to package old policy in a prettier bottle and call it better wine. More than a few analysts question government statistics showing gangland killings dropping by more nearly a fifth compared to Calderon’s final months in office. And the government’s policy of not naming the gangsters they’ve captured or providing context of why they matter has also made eyebrows twitch. 

The government, of course, defends its stance.

“We are not hiding any information, but we are handling things the way they should be,” Osorio told foreign correspondents.

Peña Nieto’s targeting of poverty and other social ills can’t hurt. But the problem has to be attacked from above as well as below. As in the past, the political corruption and business’ cooperation enabling the gangsters hardly gets mention these days.

Having returned to national power after a dozen year exile, Peña Nieto’s PRI has a lot riding on curing a plague spawned and nurtured during its seven-decade rule, and Peña Nieto’s attempt at a fix. However, in a more democratic and federal Mexico he faces much the same lack of levers as Calderon.

In the end, Mexico needs to put this violence behind it by attacking not just poverty but also deep-seated corruption at the highest levels. It will be a slog and a positive attitude certainly helps. But propaganda is a poor substitute for proper policy.

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