A US Congress report notes potential conflicts with the new Mexican government over how to tackle organized crime, highlighting President Enrique Peña Nieto’s plan to prioritize violence reduction over drug seizures and arrests.
“Mexico’s New Administration: Priorities and Key Issues in U.S.-Mexican Relations,” released in January by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), examined current security cooperation under the terms of aid agreement the Merida Initiative, and offered US congressmen an analysis of how this is likely to change under the new government of Enrique Peña Nieto.
The report said that Peña Nieto’s desire to break from the militaristic policies of his predecessor could cause issues in cooperation between the two countries, highlighting the Mexican president’s declaration that his administration would measure success by a reduction in violence instead of by drugs seized and criminals arrested.
“This shift could potentially create some tension with US efforts to combat Mexico’s transnational criminal organizations. Any move by the Peña Nieto government to negotiate with criminal groups, as the Salvadoran government has done, and/or legalize certain drugs, would likely prompt congressional concerns,” it states.
The report also raised questions over Peña Nieto’s plans to create a National Gendarmerie to tackle organized crime. This body will not be eligible to receive US financial aid if it does not have arrest authority, according to the CRS.
However, the CRS also highlighted how Peña Nieto’s plans to enact judicial reform and prioritize crime prevention “dovetail” with two of the Merida Initative’s revised priorities: institutionalizing the rule of law, and building strong and resilient communities. The report acknowledged that little progress has been made in these areas since the Merida Initative’s priorities were adjusted in 2009, but blamed this on “the weakness of Mexico’s criminal justice system [which] has hindered the effectiveness of anti-crime efforts.”
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The CRS report brings into focus what will likely to be one of the main obstacles to Peña Nieto’s security agenda if he is to genuinely change course from his predecessor Felipe Calderon: US intransigence.
US legislators are keenly aware of the political implications of any policy that could be seen to be “backing down” from the drug war or being “soft on drugs.” If Peña Nieto’s violence reduction policies are publicly presented that way in the United States, it will raise serious questions over US funding and the future of the Merida Initiative.
However, the revised priorities of the Merida Iniative, with the change in focus from training and equipping security forces to institution building, along with the implicit recognition that the initiative has not made the gains both governments had hoped for, suggest that the United States can be open to alternative approaches as long as these political considerations are taken into account.