What Mexico’s Elections Mean for Crime Policy: Part II

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Though power is set to change hands in Mexico’s impending presidential election, a radical shift in the country’s security policy is unlikely. InSight Crime looks at the factors preventing change, in the second of a two-part series.

The Limits of Reform

Some have said that a Peña Nieto presidency would mean a major shift in the country’s security policy, but this is overstated. It seems to stem from the idea that Peña Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is often blamed for the flourishing of Mexico’s transnational criminal groups in the 1980s and 1990s, will seek a pact with the drug traffickers, allowing them carte blanche in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes and a fall in violence.

While such a move would not be unthinkable, Peña Nieto has said on numerous occasions that he will continue to attack Mexico’s criminal organizations. Even if he were inclined to negotiate, a number of factors make a return to the 1980s impossible: the fracturing of the trafficking industry (there are no longer one or two dominant organizations to make deals with), the democratic opening (even holding the presidency, the PRI will not have a monopoly on power), the more aggressive and more open investigative news media, and an endless stream of public opinion polls finding widespread support for an aggressive posture toward criminal groups.

Other elements of Peña Nieto’s supposed change of direction are less dramatic than they might appear. As noted in part I, his focus on reducing violence reflects a society-wide clamor, rather than the candidate’s radical new crime policies. Calderon has also hailed recent drops in violence. Were he to serve a second term (which is banned under Mexico’s constitution), he would likely place greater emphasis on lowering the murder rate as well.

Other concerns are simply unfounded. One is that a Peña Nieto administration would drastically reduce cooperation with the US. There is no good reason to expect this. Giving Washington the cold shoulder after the election would be inconsistent with Peña Nieto’s campaign, during which he has been highly solicitous of US opinion (hence his interview with the New York Times, and numerous public appearances in the country). Furthermore, there are countless points of contact between the two governments independent of the presidency, and the next leader wouldn’t be able to simply shut all these down, even if he were interested in doing so. Moreover, a certain level of cooperation with US officials is popular in Mexico; according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of the population are in favor of the US providing military and police training to their Mexican counterparts.

In fact, relations between the White House and the Mexican presidency may well improve with Calderon’s exit. While the Harvard-educated Calderon is often painted as pro-US, he has become a strident critic of his northern neighbor in recent years. He has slammed the US for failing to crack down on the southbound flow of arms and the demand for illegal drugs, and has even suggested that druglord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is hiding north of the border. His fury at former US Ambassador Carlos Pascual’s criticism of Mexico’s military, revealed in a WikiLeaks cable, obliged Pascual to tender his resignation in 2011.

Another area worrying some policymakers is the possibility that Peña Nieto would remove the armed forces from Mexico’s streets. In fact, Peña Nieto, like his electoral adversaries, has called for the gradual removal of military troops, but, crucially, he has not said when he would do this, nor has he staked his reputation on it. His position on the matter is more aspirational than operational, and should he continue to use the military in a domestic capacity throughout his presidency, it wouldn’t qualify as a broken promise so much as a vague goal that went unmet.

What to Expect

In short, Mexico’s crime policy has certain foundations that a Peña Nieto presidency would not shake. At the most fundamental level, there will likely continue to be widespread prohibition of the same drugs that are currently illegal, both in the US and in Mexico. The two countries will certainly continue to cooperate. Arrests of capos will still represent a public relations coup for the Mexican security agencies, as well as the presidency, and so will still be pursued. Efforts to strengthen the institutions charged with implementing security policy, including ongoing purges of corrupt officials, will remain a vital imperative for any government, and Peña Nieto has indicated that such efforts will continue. Any shifts will occur within the relatively narrow terrain left untouched by these boundaries.

After the campaign, the lasting impression has not been that of a runaway favorite intent on making radical changes to the fight against organized crime. Rather, it has been of a quartet of candidates who seem well aware of the fact that there is no easy answer to Mexico’s security problems. Their response has been to largely ignore the issue. InSight Crime noted the candidates’ lack of interest in crime policy in January, and the subsequent six months of campaigning did little to change that. The candidates’ comments on the stump have been noticeably short on details on security. The three presidential debates — two official ones in which Peña Nieto participated, one organized by the anti-PRI campaign group Yo Soy 132, in which he did not — have devoted precious little attention to security policy.

Public security remains one of the most important questions for Mexican voters, but the fact that no one, including the front runner, wants to stake their candidacy on it demonstrates the lack of concrete ideas for how to improve the situation. For a number of reasons, the organized crime issue is a pickle for policy-makers: broadly speaking, Calderon’s policies are popular, but their results — more than 50,000 deaths over the past six years, and a doubling of the murder rate — have been disastrous. Worse still, the links between Calderon’s strategy and the increased bloodshed are indirect and unclear. That is, radical changes to Calderon’s approach carry a definite political risk, but there is no certainty that they would bring about lower murder rates.

Consequently, the Calderon administration’s approach will likely continue to feature over the next six years. Should he win, Peña Nieto will surely seek some cosmetic changes, and he may push the philosophy underlying Mexico’s crime strategy in a new direction. But the obstacles to a different approach are enormous; as a result, for better or worse, the shifts are likely to be marginal. The impact this has on crime rates and the quality of Mexico’s institutions remains to be seen.

Read part I of InSight Crime’s series on the Mexican presidential election.

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