Michoacan’s Security Surge: Back to the Future

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The Mexican government claims that a security surge in Michoacan state in response to ongoing violence is better coordinated than similar initiatives led by the Calderon administration, although, as security analyst Alejandro Hope points out, there are in fact more similarities than differences. 

If you don’t live under a rock, you already known that the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto recently implemented a measure with clearly Calderon-esque tones: they launched a new federal operation in Michoacan. But this one is completely different, says Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong. What are the differences? There are three:

1. Coordination: “The army is working in coordination with the National Police, the navy, the PGR [Attorney General’s Office], and with the CISEN [Center for Research and National Security], in a joint strategy with the state’s government. This is one primary difference. This time, the federal government’s strategy is not only about imposing itself on the state’s strategy, but rather, they are working together.”

2. Strategy: “We are very clear in what we want. This time there are objectives; what’s more, within the strategy, we know where and who and what we have to do.”

3. Citizen participation: “There is not, nor will there ever be, an effective security effort if civil society does not participate; they are the people who have the best information.”

It could be that I am stupid, but I am having a hard time seeing the distinction:

1. In the operation launched in December 2006, the army also worked in conjunction with the Navy, the PGR, the National Police and the CISEN. That is to say, for that reason, it was described as a “joint” operation and was announced in one press conference by the interior minister, the defense minister, the public security minister, the navy, and the attorney general. And the operation began with the full knowledge and consent of Michoacan’s governor at the time, Lazaro Cardenas Batel. Did conflicts later occur between the federal bodies and the state government? Without a doubt, but that is another story; from the start, the operation did not seem very different from what was announced [in late May].

2. There were also objectives in the 2006 operation. They were listed by then-Interior Minister Francisco Ramirez Acuña, during the same the press conference in which the operation was announced. Among other things, it aimed to “put an end to illegal cultivations, perform searches, carry out arrest warrants, and dismantle drug sales points,” in addition to “bringing peace to public spaces that have been taken over by crime.” These objectives could be judged as inadequate, unachievable, or it could be said they were not fulfilled (all three things are probably true at the same time). It could even be argued that the objectives defined for the 2013 operation are better and more clearly described than those of 2006 (we don’t know, since Minister Osorio did not give details). But the mere existence of objectives and a strategy cannot be presented as a difference between the 2006 and 2013 operations.

3. Regarding citizen participation, I concede Minister Osorio’s point about Michoacan specifically. From what I know, during the Calderon operation there was little evidence of interlocution with NGOs in that state. But the same cannot be said of other operations; in Baja California and in Ciudad Juarez (during the second phase of security operations, after 2010), there was continuous work with civil society organizations. Some mechanisms for interaction were even institutionalized, such as the citizen-run security initiative known as the Mesa de Seguridad in Juarez. Perhaps the relationship between the government and civil society was not ideal, but it did exist.

In sum, if the difference is little more than organization and some meetings with NGOs, there is not much change. In contrast, the continuation of certain strategies seen under Calderon seem much clearer to me. I see at least three:

1. The operation does not have a fixed time limit. According to declarations made by Minister Osorio, the federal operation in Michoacan “will continue until the state is in a condition of security and peace is returned to all of the residents.” I am afraid to say that this could take quite a while, not only due to the magnitude of the problem, but also because the operations generate a perverse incentive — since federal forces are in charge of security in the department, state authorities do not have any motivation to increase their capacities and assume their responsibilities. The deployment of force does not negatively affect their budget (at least not fully). If anything turns out badly, they can blame the federal forces and if anything turns out well, they can take the credit. Why would a governor want the Army, Navy, or National Police to leave? Not even a crazy person would. The federal government, then, is trapped in a Catch 22 situation: if it removes its troops, it leaves a disaster, and if it stays, the state government doesn’t do anything. There are only two ways of getting out of this mess: a) increased social pressure directed at the state government (or municipal, depending on the case), as occurred in Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey, or b) the establishment of a deadline, reasonable but firm, for the removal of federal forces, with the possibility of an extension, but subject to a severe, painful conditionality (for example: all of the operative costs are deducted from the state budget). In Michoacan, the first scenario has not occurred in seven years (at least not with the necessary intensity) and the federal government has opted, for the moment, not to do the second. Thus, just like with Calderon, the operation could be unending.

2. There is no transparency regarding the operation. Minister Osorio said that they have objectives, but he did not say what they are. For this reason, it is impossible to know if they are reaching them. The agreement with the state government is just as hazy. What have the Michoacan authorities agreed to do? What responsibilities has the federal government undertaken? Osorio spoke of providing “an extraordinary support, an important resource” to the Michoacan government in order the create a competent state police force. How much will this “resource” cost? From what budget will it come? For what period will it be provided? Subject to what regulations and conditions? What results are expected? In the absence of this basic information, how can the operation be evaluated? How can blame and praise be directed? We are in the dark, just like under the previous government.

3. The participation of the armed forces in public security tasks continues to be unregulated. The gendarmerie was going to be a way of halfway resolving the problem, but it appears that this project is justifiably going to be put to sleep (it was not included in the National Development Plan and that is too big an omission to be accidental). There has been little effort to revive the legislative discussion regarding the National Security Law, the previous security regime, or the regulation of Articles 29 and 129 of the Constitution. The arguments expressed a year ago by Supreme Court Minister Jose Ramon Cossio, regarding the lack of constitutionality in the use of the armed forces for public security operations, continue to be valid. The operation in Michoacan, headed by the army, is operating in dangerous legal terrain, just as with similar actions performed by the previous government.

The Michoacan operation is the first large-scale operation of this administration. It is very likely that it will not be the last; various states could raise their hand in the months and years to come. There is still time to change course. If this government truly wishes to differentiate itself from the previous government, they could make sure that all federal operations, present and future, have a subsidiary and limited character; complement, rather than substitute for, local authorities; proceed with transparency; and, above all, remove all doubt about their legality. This would be a change worthy of celebration. But as long as the only difference is better conducted meetings, we are left to feel that we are revisiting the spirit of 2006.

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