What Z40’s Arrest Tells Us about Mexico’s Security Policy

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The arrest of Zetas boss Miguel Angel Treviño, alias Z40, continues to roil Mexico, shifting the dynamic not only within the world of organized crime but also affecting the political climate and the relationship with the US.

Shortly after press reports of the arrest of Treviño began to emerge on July 15, attention quickly began to shift toward the secondary effects of his arrest. As InSight Crime pointed out, this arrest could spark violence throughout the numerous territories in which the Zetas are dominant, as there is no logical successor to match Treviño’s stature within the organization. (Most initial reports pointed to Alejandro “Omar” Treviño, alias Z42, Miguel Angel’s brother, as a likely heir.) As a consequence, both internal adversaries and external enemies will be encouraged to take a shot at their rivals. 

But the meaning of Treviño’s arrest is not limited to its impact on Mexico’s criminal underworld. It also offers insight into the state of Peña Nieto’s security policy, the agencies charged with implementing it, and the role of the US in Mexico. In some ways, Treviño’s arrest marks the beginning of a new era in Mexico crime policy, but in others, the landscape looks strikingly similar to the way Felipe Calderon left it eight months ago.

Treviño’s arrest provides a boost for Mexico’s security agencies at a time when Peña Nieto continues to use his presidential pulpit to shine the spotlight on other elements of his agenda. It also comes as many in Mexico are growing impatient for the promised reductions in violence; the homicide statistics from his first six months in office show only a marginal improvement from the final stretch of the Calderon presidency.

However, despite whatever popularity bump Peña Nieto might receive from the arrest, he made little effort to celebrate the event other than a perfunctory statement. This relative distance from what appears to be a major success is likely a reaction to the consequences of Calderon’s trumpeting his security triumphs essentially from the moment he took office in 2006. Doing so indelibly linked his political fortunes to perceptions of security policy, and when bad news began to overwhelm the good, public security turned into a political millstone for Calderon, limiting his achievements in all realms. Peña Nieto seems intent on avoiding that pitfall.

The detention also demonstrates that the armed forces, and particularly Mexico’s marines, continue to play a significant role in security policy. This comes despite vague promises to phase out the use of the army and the marines, replacing them with a revamped Federal Police and Peña Nieto’s pet project, the gendarmerie. However, at this early stage of his presidency, the armed forces, especially the marines, remain the most reliable option. Furthermore, his attempts to revamp federal police forces around a gendarmerie have been bogged down in the legislative process. Whether that remains the case for five years will go a long way to determining whether Peña Nieto’s early ambitions result in any meaningful changes.

Finally, Treviño’s arrest comes at a time in which cooperation between the US and Mexico on security matters has ostensibly been reduced. Peña Nieto and his team have made frequent references to loosening the ties linking the US to Mexico’s security policy, and during a recent visit by Barack Obama, the Mexican president reiterated his government’s intentions. Instead of countless points of contact between the various agencies of the two nations, Peña Nieto and his team said that all communication with the US would be channeled through the Secretary of the Interior, which is controlled by Peña Nieto loyalist Miguel Angel Osorio Chong. In theory, this would allow the federal government to more closely monitor the US officials, but would also effectively limit American agencies’ activities within Mexico. 

In reality, it’s not clear that the reduced US role has come to fruition. As noted, Treviño was arrested by Mexican Marines, the agency that has trained most closely with US forces in recent years. According to US Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), the intelligence tip that led to his capture came from US officials. And the Marines caught up to Treviño while flying in a Black Hawk helicopter, which have been provided to the Mexican government as part of the Merida Initiative. President Obama, while celebrating the news, said that the arrest helps answer the questions he had about Peña Nieto’s seriousness in combating organized crime.

In short, this arrest has American footprints all over it, and, in the Treviño case at least, Peña Nieto’s reduced cooperation is almost indistinguishable from Calderon’s heavy reliance on the US.

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