In Mexico’s Drug War, Real Progress Is Local

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When Mexican marines recently captured Miguel Angel Trevino, the head of Los Zetas, the country’s most infamous and ruthless drug gang, Mexicans heard about it not from President Enrique Pena Nieto or one of his cabinet officials, but from a spokesman at the Interior Ministry.

That low-key approach fits with the government’s effort to play down information about drugs and violence, and it has been rewarded with improved public perceptions about crime and security.

Yet this strategy is also fraught with risk. Pena Nieto’s administration is caught between saying so much that fear is reignited and saying so little that it appears insensitive to the very serious threats still facing many Mexicans.

Another threat is the potential public backlash if security doesn’t improve at a faster rate in coming months. Combined with slow economic growth, unmet expectations on the security front could undermine the government’s political standing.

In terms of reality, however, while Mexico’s fight against crime is moving in the right direction, it is doing so at a haltingly slow pace, much as it was a year ago. Pena Nieto seems to be following the script laid out by his predecessor, Felipe Calderon: using the armed forces for policing; going after major kingpins; maintaining close, albeit more discreet, ties with U.S. security agencies.

Likewise, the criminal underworld is undergoing a transition that started under Calderon: The old cartels are fragmenting into smaller gangs that are less involved in large-scale drug trafficking and more devoted to myriad forms of “rent extraction” (extortion, kidnapping, theft).

Ambitious Reforms

An ambitious reform of the criminal-justice system is proceeding unevenly: Some states have already completed the transition to a new oral and more open system, modeled somewhat on U.S. lines (as opposed to a written, inquisitorial system in which most proceedings happen behind closed doors); others have barely started the necessary legal changes. Some states have created new, better-trained, better-paid, more honest police forces; most are still stuck with corrupt, unreliable, unprepared law-enforcement units.

Thus, Pena Nieto must find ways to accelerate the pacification of Mexico. There are two possibilities.

First, he could pursue the ethically unpalatable and potentially suicidal option of finding some accommodation with the drug gangs.

Second, he could try to accelerate institutional reform at the state and local levels. Given the weakness of most local security institutions, even relatively minor improvements can yield quick gains. In the northern state of Nuevo Leon, for example, the creation of a new police force has led to a 50 percent decline in homicides and a 70 percent reduction in car thefts over the past year.

How do you replicate that experience? Some budgetary incentives might help -- creating, for instance, block grants for states and cities that achieve specific institutional transformation goals, such as the creation of vetted police forces or elite anti-kidnapping units. In addition, if state governments request the presence of federal forces, there could be stricter conditionality, linking their deployment or permanence to police and criminal-justice reforms.

U.S. economic assistance needs to be creatively leveraged if it is to be truly useful. At less than $300 million a year, the Merida Initiative is too small to change the security equation at the national level, but it could potentially modulate the behavior of local players. U.S.-funded programs could be aimed at state governments that make serious reform efforts, leading to virtuous competition among subnational jurisdictions.

Institutional Change

In a broad pacification strategy, the Mexican government could complement institutional change with focused targeting of the most violent groups. The demolition of the Zetas provides a useful template: The government could warn other gangs, explicitly or tacitly, that they are next in line for the same treatment unless they reduce the violence.

These items are not yet part of the current policy mix. The authorities seem to trust that a somewhat improved version of the Calderon strategy -- with slightly better interagency and intergovernmental coordination -- along with some ramped-up crime-prevention programs can produce radically superior results. They could be right, but big bets on that outcome would be rather risky.

In the long run, Mexico is likely to become more peaceful, particularly if structural reforms lead to stronger economic growth. A larger middle class will demand improved public services, including the police and the criminal-justice system. However, that process is too far off in the future to be relevant to the current administration.

Violence devoured the Calderon presidency. To avoid that fate, Pena Nieto must go beyond just talking a good game -- or, in this case, not talking a bad one. Media savvy can only take you so far in a country with 25,000 murder victims every year.

(Alejandro Hope is a security policy analyst at IMCO, a Mexico City think tank, and a former intelligence officer.)

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