Mexico’s Proposed Institutional Reforms Unlikely to Yield Change in Security

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Mexico’s President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador has used his transition period before taking office in December to launch a series of proposals to reform the nation’s security agencies. But the substance of these plans sheds light on Mexico’s age-old impulse to rely on needless reorganization as a substitute for institutional improvement.

Among the most dramatic reforms that the new administration is pushing is the return of the Department of Public Security (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública – SSP). First created in 2000 under former President Vicente Fox, the SSP dramatically expanded its role during the tenure of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). The SSP, whose chief Genaro García Luna turned into an emblem of the Calderón administration’s failures and abuses, was dissolved soon after current president Enrique Peña Nieto took office in late 2012.

López Obrador has also promised to abolish Mexico’s intelligence agency (Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional – CISEN), El Universal reported. In its place, he said he will create a National Intelligence Agency, which will operate as part of the new SSP.

Finally, López Obrador’s Public Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said the incoming president is planning to establish a new militarized border police, El Financiero reported.

The Border Guard, which would theoretically replace Mexico’s armed forces, tens of thousands of whose members have been deployed domestically since 2006, appears to be an altered version of the National Guard that López Obrador proposed during the campaign, before backing away after his victory.

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More than three months remain before López Obrador is inaugurated, and many details of his security proposals—if not their basic design—will surely shift in the interim. But Mexico’s president-elect will enter office with both substantial Congressional backing and with the widespread goodwill that new administrations typically enjoy. Given his manifest inclinations, a substantial reconfiguration of Mexico’s security agencies appears inevitable.

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In one sense, López Obrador’s ideas have decades of precedent. Every new administration since the turn of the century has pursued a dramatic reorganization of Mexico’s security institutions, from Fox’s creation of the Federal Investigative Agency (Agencia Federal de Investigación – AFI), to Calderón’s abolition of the same body and Peña Nieto’s much-ballyhooed Gendarmerie.

Each of these changes aimed at revolutionizing the nation’s approach to public security. They didn’t.

The reforms have served as little more than drops of water in the ocean as Mexican security has marched steadily in the wrong direction. The AFI was displaced by the military as the primary agent of Calderón’s policy well before its abolition. The gendarmerie ended up as a small force with a limited mandate. Despite their many efforts, both Calderón and Peña Nieto left the nation’s security situation far worse off than when they were elected.

It isn’t that the prior reforms, or those proposed by López Obrador, are necessarily bad ideas. Rather, they have little to do with the root causes of the government’s inability to respond to security crises. Any effort to improve the performance of Mexican security agencies should focus on the most granular aspects of individual officers’ work: What incentives lead them to collude with criminals and to commit human rights abuses? What do they need to better track illegal groups’ activities and help build legal cases against them?

López Obrador’s proposals, including that to reduce the role of the armed forces in Mexico and to improve police salaries, have the potential to alter the country’s security landscape.

But at this stage, these bare-bones ideas are in their most embryonic stage,and require a mountain of preparation to become viable and effective policies.

These promises of increased professionalization and demilitarization must be integrated into a comprehensive strategy to improve the collective on-the-ground performance of the various security agencies, and to reduce their abuses. Rather than pursuing needless reorganization, López Obrador and his security team would do better dedicating their time to the herculean task of turning his nascent impulses into a workable program.

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