Security Crisis Stains Peña Nieto’s Legacy in Mexico

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Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto’s final report on the state of the country showed that the security crisis will be one of his darkest legacies and one of the incoming administration’s toughest challenges.

Peña Nieto publicly presented the sixth, and final, report of his administration’s actions on September 3. The document has one chapter dedicated to Mexico’s deepening security crisis.

“Although I have to acknowledge that there are areas where our efforts did not meet the objectives we had set for ourselves, I also leave knowing that the Mexico we hand over is, without a doubt, better than the Mexico we had six years ago,” Peña Nieto said in one of the videos that accompanied the report.

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During the presentation, which was attended by Mexico’s political elites, the president ran through some of what he defined as his administration’s main accomplishments in the fight against violence and organized crime.

He mentioned moves for state institutions to work more closely together, the strengthening of security forces, the increased use of intelligence, the development of social programs to prevent violence, the implementation of a new justice system and the passing of a number of laws to fight corruption, which has been a challenge in Mexico for decades.

“We have fought violence with intelligence and with the legitimate use of violence at the hands of the state. In this way, we have succeeded in reducing the capacity and size of criminal organizations,” Peña Nieto said, adding that authorities had either arrested or killed 110 of the 122 criminal targets it had set out to apprehend when he took office.

However, the president also acknowledged that although violence decreased during his first years in office, the kingpin strategy, largely based on targeting the heads of criminal organizations, has led to the fragmentation of larger groups into smaller cells that have been more difficult to target, particularly given the poor capacity of local police forces.

“I’m aware that we didn’t meet the objective of finding peace for Mexicans across the country. Turning that desire into reality will require a long, sustained effort,” Peña Nieto said.

InSight Crime Analysis

There is no doubt this would have been a tough speech for President Peña Nieto to deliver. No matter how hard he tried to highlight the security advances made during his six years in office, rising homicide figures cast a very bleak light on the country’s reality and the challenges ahead.

Peña Nieto arrived at the presidency in December 2012 determined to change course from the aggressive militarization of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. But many blame him for a rise in the rate of homicides across the country because he lacked a sense of proper policy craftsmanship and seems to have failed to consider the precise reasons for Calderón’s fiasco.

Instead of building a comprehensive security strategy, Peña Nieto voiced support for novel half-measures that were ultimately meaningless: creating an unnecessary new federal police agency, promising to downplay the kingpin strategy and shifting public attention away from the government’s clashes with drug cartels.

This was a recipe for failure.

The clearest evidence of Peña Nieto’s misguided strategy is the stratospheric leap in Mexico’s crime rate.

The outgoing president opened his tenure with two years of declining murder rates, but his team was unable to maintain this trend. By 2015, the number of killings was again on the rise, and the nation is now more violent than when Peña Nieto was inaugurated. By some measures, Peña Nieto’s Mexico has surpassed all precedent. With nearly 2,900 homicides, May 2018 was the bloodiest month in the country’s modern history.

But Peña Nieto’s missteps cannot be fully illustrated by crime statistics alone. Acts of corruption and incompetence throughout his administration have gravely undermined public confidence in government institutions. The most notorious example—the government’s bungling of the investigation of the forced disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa—reads as a relic from the nation’s authoritarian past.

Ayotzinapa has rightly become both an international scandal and an emblem of Peña Nieto’s ineptitude, but it is one of a drumbeat of scandals that leave the public unable to trust its leaders. The army was credibly accused of perpetrating a massacre in 2014. More than a dozen governors have come under investigation for corruption, in most cases stemming from ties to organized crime. And a number of promising anti-graft reforms are still little more than words on paper.

Similar examples of the increasing chaos abound.

The rupture in the implicit contract between the governed and government has been deepened by Peña Nieto’s disinterest in protecting the press. This has propitiated the continued slaughter of Mexico’s media workers, many of whom have, in turn, opted for self-censorship.

Similarly, Peña Nieto’s administration has done little to tackle the increase in attacks on municipal officials, which have left scores of mayors dead during his tenure. In 2018, more than 100 candidates for public office—primarily at the local level—were murdered. This gruesome trend has undercut the effectiveness of local governments, which in theory should be the most responsive to citizens’ day-to-day concerns.

The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador amounted to a profound rejection of the establishment that Peña Nieto represents. Much of that rejection was a product of his flailing security policy. But while Mexicans appear excited to turn the page on the current administration, the breaches in public trust that Peña Nieto created will not be easily healed. This sad legacy will present a challenge to governance for years, if not generations, to come.

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