Will Mexico's Drug War Change?

Mexico's virtual president-elect Pena Nieto meets with outgoing president Felipe Calderon on July 17. (Photo: Office of Pena Nieto).


How will president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto fight Mexico's drug war? Five experts share their insights.


Inter-American Dialogue 


Two weeks before winning Mexico's presidential election on July 1, Enrique Peña Nieto named Gen. Óscar Naranjo, the former chief of Colombia's national police, as his public security advisor. At the time, Peña Nieto also said he would work closely with the United States on security issues. How different will Peña Nieto and Naranjo's approach to improving security be in comparison to current President Felipe Calderón's strategy? What lessons from Colombia's fight against the FARC are transferrable to Mexico, if any? How might Mexico-U.S. cooperation on security change under Peña Nieto?  

Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board and president of Rozental & Asociados in Mexico City and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution:
From what virtual President-elect Peña Nieto has said publicly, his government definitely plans a change of strategy in the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime. While maintaining a commitment to combat criminals and violence in Mexico, the next president of Mexico has stated that he intends to give priority to keeping Mexicans safe and ending the violence that has plagued the country since Felipe Calderón declared his 'war' on drugs almost six years ago. Peña Nieto has decided to gradually replace the military police function with a civilian controlled gendarmerie -- similar to the French or Spanish model -- and absorb law enforcement responsibility on a national basis. Gen. Naranjo, who led his own country's national police in its successful fight against violence in Colombia, would seem to have been invited by Peña Nieto to help in this strategy and to reassure the authorities in Washington that the incoming Mexican administration will rely on assistance from someone trusted by the Americans. However, I don't see any lessons to be learned in Mexico from the guerrilla-driven strategy followed either by the United States or Colombia against the FARC. What seems clear, however, is that Peña Nieto does not intend to continue Calderón's monothematic emphasis on drugs and security in Mexico's relationship with the United States, either in rhetoric or in action. There is a growing frustration in Mexico and other Latin American countries with the United States' inability to control demand for drugs, or to prevent the associated arms trafficking and money laundering. Hence the change of emphasis in allocating scarce human and financial resources to the fight against internal violence rather than helping the United States interdict drug flows destined for American consumers. 

Myles Frechette, international trade and business consultant and former U.S. ambassador to Colombia: By appointing Gen. Óscar Naranjo as an advisor, Peña Nieto reassured both fellow Mexicans and Washington that he is serious about confronting illegal drugs and criminal violence. Colombian police now advise a number of governments in Latin America. Naranjo's success as Colombia's police chief is globally recognized. Arguably, he has replaced Juan Valdez as the symbol of Colombian excellence. Naranjo is busy giving tested advice, like setting goals to measure progress in reducing violence. And, five months before becoming president, Peña Nieto's views already reflect what worked in Colombia: increasing police numbers, specifically 35,000 more Federal Police and a new 40,000 national gendarmerie for violent rural areas; improving coordination between all police forces; providing federal oversight; cracking down on corruption; consolidating municipal and state police and comprehensive criminal law reform. Once Peña Nieto assumes office, however, some of these goals may take years to achieve. Thus, we should expect many of Mexico's current tactics to remain largely unchanged for some time. As a foreign advisor, Naranjo will have two key advantages. He is not American and he will not have direct authority over Mexican officials. Rather, will advise through Peña Nieto. Historically, Mexican officials and academics have rejected any 'Colombianization' (i.e. comparison) of Mexico's approach to narcotrafficking with Colombia's. Peña Nieto will probably place greater emphasis on sovereignty in his relationship with the United States than his predecessor, but it's hard to imagine a better choice for security advisor than Gen. Naranjo.     

Maria Velez de Berliner, president of Latin Intelligence Corporation:
Óscar Naranjo gives Peña Nieto credibility that he would not otherwise have as a crime fighter. However, the unintended consequences of the military/police special units Naranjo has proposed can potentially exacerbate the violence.  Mexico, like Colombia, has a history steeped in violence and murderous political, social and economic rivalries. The history of the Guerra de la Reforma shows the deleterious consequences of establishing special military units. Given the endemic corruption of Mexico's police, and the now-apparent corruption within the armed forces, coupled with the corruptive power of the cartels, it seems doubtful that even the most effective vetting system can keep the elite units clean. And the historic distrust between the military and the police will add to the potential downside of this approach. Mexico does not have a group that remotely resembles the FARC. If the campaigns of the last 50 years against the FARC had been as successful as they are purported to be, today's 'weakened' FARC would not be what it is-a wealthy, transnational criminal organization. But the one lesson Peña Nieto needs to learn from Colombia is this: The Medellín cartel (the Sinaloa of Colombia) was brought down by PEPES, which morphed into Convivir, the model for Mexico's special units. Convivir morphed into the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). The AUC then morphed the BACRIMS, which today are integral to Colombia's network of transnational criminal organizations, including the FARC. Peña Nieto will create the special units he needs to keep his promise to decrease violence. Their bullets will not help him achieve his objective. Only through the elimination of corruption, collusion, impunity and illegality can Mexico gain a relative measure of security.

George W. Grayson, professor of government at the College of William & Mary: Reducing bloodshed represents the first, second and third priorities of Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) in the drug war. Outgoing Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna has attracted college graduates into such technical areas as forensics, communications and intelligence. He has had only limited success in recruiting well-educated young people into traditional police functions. While impressively trained, these recruits are exposed to corruption and cooptation by shadowy commanders, many of whom are linked to drug syndicates. Gen. Óscar Naranjo Trujillo, 56, is an intelligence pro, nemesis of the Calí cartel and was hard-charging chief of the Colombian National Police. The toxic nationalism engulfing the Defense Ministry (SEDENA) finds the brass piqued by having a high-profile foreigner in strategy design. Peña Nieto has proposed creating a civilian-controlled 'gendarmerie' bolstered by 40,000 military personnel. SEDENA, already miffed at Naranjo's arrival plus praise heaped on the navy/marines for success against kingpins, is unlikely to supply high quality cadres to a new force. Much will depend on the next defense secretary. In contrast to SEDENA's past autonomy, EPN's entourage will seek selection of a relatively clean defense secretary in light of the anti-drug crusade's contaminating influence reflected in the imprisonment of five generals. Luis Videgaray Caso, EPN's extremely astute campaign manager and likely chief of staff, agrees with Naranjo on lowering the boom on money launderers. The retired four-star general also favors more resources to combat the influx of weapons and the formation of meticulously trained multi-service 'shock troops' to curb violence within 100 days of EPN's Dec. 1 inauguration.

Nicolás Mariscal, member of the Advisor board and chairman of Grupo Marhnos in Mexico City and Sergio Ferragut, a public policy specialist and author: There are contradictory reports on the credentials of Gen. Óscar Naranjo. He gets lots of praise from the DEA. However, Proceso, a leftist weekly Mexican publication, recently published an article questioning his credentials. It is hard not to compare Naranjo to the current Mexican public security secretary, Genaro García Luna. García Luna also gets much praise from the Americans; he actually spent a few weeks last May touring the United States at their invitation-perhaps a job hunting junket. The jury is still out on whether these two individuals are true role models of democratic and ethical law enforcement practices. We can expect continuity in the security policies of Peña Nieto as he carries on U.S. security interests along the same lines as those pursued by García Luna under President Calderón. The FARC is a guerrilla group engaged in drug trafficking to obtain financing; they are very different from the Mexican drug cartels that are in the business of delivering drugs to the American consumers-no lessons here for Mexico. However, there might be lessons to heed from President Santos. Peña Nieto announced two days after his election that he would welcome President Santos' proposal for open dialogue on the legalization of drugs. That would be a very welcome change from Calderón's position; it remains to be seen if the United States wants to join. The United States would have to abandon its comfort zone and that's something U.S. policy makers are not accustomed to.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter


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