A report from a prominent think tank tackles the new security strategy in Tamaulipas, one of Mexico’s perennially conflictive northern states.
The Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute published Plan Tamaulipas: A New Security Strategy for a Troubled State in October of last year. Written by Christopher Wilson and Eugenio Weigend, the report analyzes a new security program launched by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government in May 2014.
The new strategy came amid a period of prolonged conflict between the two major criminal groups controlling the region, allies turned enemies the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. The plan for Tamaulipas is based on three pillars: the dismantling of existing criminal groups; the elimination of smuggling routes, whether for cash and arms coming into Mexico or for drugs and undocumented migrants heading to the US; and the construction of “sufficient, efficient, and reliable” security agencies at the local level.
In order to meet these goals, the government announced plans to send roughly 4,000 federal troops, representing the army, the marines, the federal police, and Cisen, the nation’s intelligence agency.
According to Wilson and Weigend, the troops will employ a number of tactics in pursuing the three strategic goals. Among others, the government promised to increase patrols in port cities, border crossings, and along heavily trafficked highways; to facilitate anonymous reporting of crimes; to increase coordination among different agencies and different levels of government; and to build stronger counterintelligence networks so as to better target criminal operations.
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In some ways, the need for a dedicated Tamaulipas plan is obvious. The state is the home territory for what are traditionally two of the most powerful groups in the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. These groups have long posed a threat to the local political system; to take but one example, the Zetas are suspected of gunning down the gubernatorial front runner in 2010.
Their groups’ crimes have included some of the most horrific acts of recent violence against civilians, such as the massacres of migrants passing through the region or, one state over in Nuevo Leon, the burning of a casino that allegedly refused to make extortion payments. The state’s murder rate has plummeted from its high-water mark of 1,016 in 2012 to just 628 in 2014, but extortion and kidnapping (which disproportionately target civilians) remain far above the national average.
Furthermore, both groups’ control over their respective portions of Tamaulipas and the surrounding states — which include several of the most active ports of entry into the United States — has weakened amid a years-long campaign that has brought down a number of their erstwhile leaders. A properly calibrated security plan could help avoid the worst effects of a prolonged power vacuum.
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And in some ways, the plan outlined in the report promises to be a bit more thoughtful than the typical flood of military troops into a violence-ridden area. There is far more detail than was evident when, for instance, former President Felipe Calderon first committed a large-scale military deployment to Juarez.
But there are also reasons to be concerned about the efficacy of Plan Tamaulipas. One is the poor track record: while they have gotten far more attention in recent years, military deployments against drug traffickers have been occurring for decades, and they often fail to have a long-term effect on security. This makes sense: it is far easier for a drug trafficking organization to keep a temporarily low profile or alter its practices in response to a deployment than it is for a short-term military operation to address the deep-seated causes of insecurity.
While the promise to help build stronger local security agencies is laudable –indeed it is vital– there is also nothing to suggest that the 4,000 new troops have the capacity to do so. The government’s promises to encourage anonymous reporting are fine, as a small step to increase the public’s cooperation with and trust in the local police. But as a step toward building resilient institutions capable of standing up to wealthy criminal organizations, it is only a couple of drops in the ocean.
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It’s also not clear that the promises to increase coordination across government agencies are anything more than nods toward the public relations demands of the new strategy. The focus on coordination is an old refrain in Mexican security, but the happy words often do little to address endemic corruption or to create enduring mechanisms for collaboration, not just between different agencies but with civil society leaders as well.
Plan Tamaulipas also does little to repair the social fabric in the state. There is nothing of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the government poured into social institutions in Todos Somos Juarez, the program that Calderon’s government launched for Juarez in 2010. Perhaps that is because security in Tamaulipas today is far better than Juarez in 2010. But the ingredients for a security conflagration are all there in Tamaulipas –warring criminal groups, valuable smuggling routes, weak government– and a bit of governmental foresight is perhaps the best way to avoid such declines.