Early last month, Mexico’s new government published its first report on the drug-cartel related violence that continues to affect the lives of residents in many parts of the country. The report explains that during the first two months of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency, Mexico experienced more than 2,000 organized crime-related murders. The country tallied 1,139 in December, including 17 mutilated bodies dumped near the Texas border in the state of Tamaulipas and 1,104 in January, including 12 machine gun carrying suspects who were killed in a stand-off with federal agents in the northern state of Zacatecas.
Under Peña Nieto’s watch, government forces have battled cartel gunmen and have pushed forward with former President Felipe Calderón’s crop eradication program, destroying 201 hectares of marijuana crops and 795 hectares of poppy seed plants. Still, in many cities and towns, residents continue to complain about criminal activity and a local absence of rule of law.
So far, the strategy inherited from Calderón has yielded mixed results. Under Calderón’s leadership, Mexico’s government succeeded in pushing drug ferrying planes off its airstrips and into airfields in Guatemala and Honduras. Calderón’s forces also captured and killed a number of high profile cartel leaders. But after more than six years of continuous anti-cartel operations, the traditional strongholds of the embattled organized crime groups have become the most violent and least stable parts of the country.
In the state of Guerrero, as cartel leaders such as the Beltran Leyva brothers and La Barbie were killed or captured, a destabilizing sequence of inter-cartel competition has led to a string of disturbing violent incidents as well as complaints about robbery and extortion. Mexico-focused security analyst Sylvia Longmire says that “there are at least two or three major TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] and several smaller criminal gangs operating there…fighting for control.”
A string of arrests has led to infighting among the criminal groups in these states, but has not deterred criminals from engaging in extortion, kidnapping, and grisly killings. Violence in Acapulco continues even after Peña Nieto sent in an additional 500 soldiers to bolster security. In February, elected officials in Guerrero state struggled to explain how, under their watch, six Spanish tourists were raped during a home invasion. The breakdown of public security in Guerrero has become even more complicated after the emergence of armed citizens groups who are taking responsibility for meting out justice to suspected cartel members and have even shot at visiting tourists.
At a February 12 conference on police reform in Mexico at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, Mexico researcher Duncan Wood explained, “Mexico actually has great laws. The question is how we make those work.”
The problem facing many average Mexicans is a breakdown of law enforcement at the local level. Over the next six years of his term in office, Peña Nieto will need to reduce Mexico’s crime rate and implement an action plan that will allow the army to wind down its role in public security and give the police both the responsibility and the opportunity to solve crimes, ensure order, and protect local communities.
“Reducing violent crime at the local level is still EPN's ultimate goal, but [right now] he can't really pull the army out of so many places so quickly. Ripping off that band-aid will lead to too much bleeding,” says Longmire.
On February 12, Peña Nieto announced some details about his multi-tiered crime prevention plan. The president has promised to ensure greater cooperation between local and national crime prevention efforts. His government is creating a new under-secretary of crime prevention to deal with this issue. He also plans to send a new national gendarmerie to patrol the most violent sections of the country and send out specially trained federal police units who will work to fight extortion and kidnapping.
A December 2012 report from The Economist Intelligence Unit found that “The new security strategy, although not marking a fundamental shift from that of the previous administration, should help to reduce drug-related crime in the medium term.”
So far, Peña Nieto has completed less than 5 percent of his six-year term in office, but the public is waiting to see results when it comes to reducing crime. Dismantling the cartels is not enough. Rule of law and effective policing need to be implemented at the local level.