InSight Crime Co-Director Steven Dudley was invited to testify before US Congress on May 23, in order to provide an overview of US-Mexico security cooperation, with special emphasis on the Merida Initiative. Below is a selected extract of the remarks, including policy recommendations for US-Mexico relations when going forward.
Since taking office in December, President Enrique Peña Nieto has given only a broad outline of how he will achieve the goal of reducing violence in Mexico. These plans include prevention programs and a special unit, or Gendarmerie, to be dispatched to Mexico’s hotspots. He has promised more coordination, and a reformed police and judicial system. And he has said there will be more emphasis on human rights. He also dissolved the Secretariat of Public Security (SSP), the most important conduit for US assistance and cooperation via the Merida Initiative.
[Download the full pdf of Dudley’s remarks before the Subcommittee on Western Affairs, of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs]
The SSP’s functions were assumed by the Interior Ministry, which now manages security policy and will be the single conduit through which Merida funds will pass. In some quarters, this centralization of power is a welcome change from the Calderon administration in which there was at times confusion of who was making the final decisions. But for others, this represents a step backwards in relations and adds layers of bureaucracy that will make it harder to foster the regular and informal contact that some mid-level managers enjoyed during the previous administration and that led to some of the “shared cooperation” sought under Merida.
Peña Nieto has also spent much of his time trying to change the narrative about criminal activity in Mexico. He and his communication’s team have limited their public statements on the fight against organized crime and instead have focused on selling this as “Mexico’s Moment.” While there are some positive economic indicators and immigration appears to be continuing its downward trajectory because of these gains, there is little indication the criminal groups have slowed their violent ways. In fact, violence has continued apace, even if the government does not want to admit it.
To be sure, the government has shut down many avenues of communication and access to information, even for the US government, has been limited. To cite just a couple of examples: a recent freedom of information request on criminal activity by the local press was denied from a request would have been a routinely fulfilled under the Calderon administration; and, following an explosion at the government petroleum company Pemex in January that killed 37 people and injured over 100, US bomb investigators were not allowed to reach ground zero to inspect suspicions that perhaps there was some foul
At the same time, the government has yet to, in any great detail, outline exactly how this administration’s strategy will be different in substance from the Calderon administration’s strategy. In some respects, it feels the same. Peña Nieto has, for the most part, left army troops and federal police in many of the same hot spots where Calderon used them. He has said that he will continue efforts to purge and restock the police. He appears willing to continue reforming the justice system, although both police and judicial reform seem to be stalling already under his administration.
Amongst the more subtle shifts in policy, the role of these army troops appears to be changing. To begin with, Peña Nieto has reduced the role of the Marines by some 40 percent. The Navy, during the Calderon administration, became one of the US government’s chief allies, helping kill or capture some of the most notorious kingpins, including Arturo Beltran Leyva, during a famous shootout in 2009. The army’s role also appears to be shifting, although evidence of this shift is more anecdotal than quantitative. Sources in two high conflict areas tell InSight Crime that army patrols and roadblocks have been reduced. “The order is to slow down,” one colonel from a high conflict zone told InSight Crime.
In theory, the Gendarmerie would replace the army and navy in conflict zones, or at least compliment them. The administration has said it would consist of 40,000 specially trained members, most of them taken from the ranks of the military. However, there are several legal and procedural hurdles that the administration would have to clear and has yet to even propose. What’s more, the criteria for use of this force and what legal measures it will have at its disposal have yet to be considered. The reasons for creating this “shock troop” may be noble but superfluous. Mexico already has tremendously competitive security forces and fostering coordination amongst them has been a major obstacle to success in fighting criminal groups.
In another subtle shift under Peña Nieto, the Attorney General’s Office has reduced the number of drug prosecutions to a 15-year low (see chart, left). To be fair, what are technically called “crimes against health” were already dropping during the last months of the Calderon administration, but the contrast between the number of cases opened by the Attorney General’s Office at the onset of the Calderon administration and at the onset of the Peña Nieto administration illustrates the stark difference in approach between the two governments. While Calderon tried to “bully” his way toward a more manageable security situation, Peña Nieto appears more interested in taking a selective approach and possibly reducing the pressure on criminal groups involved in drug trafficking as a way to lower the temperature of this confrontation.
There are two arenas in which the United States plays: one is practical and the other is political. The reality of the Merida Initiative is that, while important, it does not represent a significant amount of the Mexican security budget. In fact, it is on the order of 3 to 5 percent of the national security budget in that country. Still, it has much political impact and influence in security policy. And this political influence may outsize its actual monetary contribution. My recommendations will therefore be broken down by these two categories: the practical and the political.
1) Push to keep momentum on judicial and police reform. These are the cornerstones of more security in Mexico. They cannot be abandoned. There must be a more effective, trustworthy police on a local level in order for there to be security. Equally important is pushing for continued judicial reform. This reform is focused on shifting the justice system from the closed-door, written system to the oral, accusatorial system. However, this is a slow, multi-year process. Stay the course.
2) Increase assistance to civil society, violence prevention, education, job training. This is the type of long-term funding that is often forgotten or given short-shrift on the local level. And, as we can see from the Juarez example, there are side benefits that we cannot predict or always direct, but we can support. This also includes supporting the free press. While I did not touch on it in much detail, this part of Mexican society is under full-scale assault by both criminal groups and the government. A free, vibrant press is a major counterbalance to these criminal groups and an overreaching government.
3) Help implement best practices and controls for military intervention in civilian law enforcement situations. The military in Mexico has proven to be a useful stopgap and, in some situations, spearhead in the fight against organized crime. But the institution remains largely unprepared for the issues involved in fighting crime, namely the transparency needed and demanded of an organization that is interacting constantly with civilians. Make the military who are participating in the front lines of these battles implement safeguards and best practices from the years of lesson-learned around the world.
4) Support the development of intelligence gathering and operational capacities. While the kingpin strategy often gets blamed for the proliferations in violence, we cannot lose sight of the benefits of this process. We need to continue to help develop and implement, where possible, actionable intelligence. Kingpins are not just operators, they are symbols of impunity, lawlessness, and in some cases become factors of instability. Part of slowing crime is creating the impression that the life span of a criminal is short and costly. Pushing the Mexican government along this continuum of creating powerful intelligence gathering services that have
counterparts who can implement this knowledge is arguably a critical first step.
1) Support the shift in strategy and priorities. The seeming shift away from capturing and/or killing major drug trafficking groups is a reflection of the sense that this confrontational strategy has come at a large and perhaps unnecessary cost for the Mexicans. They, like us, are interested in lowering the levels of violence, first and foremost. This is a laudable goal that may involve the type of trade-off that in the United States we have become used to; perhaps we need to change our definition of “kingpin” to mean “most violent,” in order to support this lateral movement. Support these shifts, as long as they do not undermine the institutional development outlined in the practical section.
2) Support the continued cooperation on the mid and lower levels across borders. These are the hidden gems in the Merida Initiative. They tend to happen in informal meetings and gatherings. They are critical to fostering long-term relations and a sense of shared responsibility that will make this fight come a lot easier down the road.
3) Less is more. There is a sense that the United States tries to do too much. We think we can resolve everything. Perhaps what this question warrants is a more focused effort. Find what works and make it a beacon.
4) Quality of life. Perhaps our goals should be about quality of life and safety, rather than number of people who are arrested or prosecuted. In my experience, these people who we want to support want to do their jobs in an independent manner – without undo political influence – and they want to feel that they and their families are safe. Support that, and it will not matter as much whether they are in a Gendarmerie or a municipal police force, or whether they are working in a written or an oral justice system.