Security analyst Alejandro Hope argues that while President Enrique Peña Nieto has presented his security policy as a break from the past, much of what he has rolled out to date will do little to significantly cut back Mexico's violence.
1) The political cost of criminal violence may be greater for President Enrique Peña Nieto than it was for his predecessor. Felipe Calderon was able to seek refuge in the theory of the inevitability of violence (such as that put forward by Joaquin Villalobos) or emphasize other objectives (for example, the dismantling of criminal groups). Peña Nieto doesn't have that option: he has explicitly, and repeatedly, stated that the primary objective of his government is the decrease in violent crimes, in particular homicide, kidnapping, and extortion. By self-imposed logic, that will be the measure of his success or failure in security and justice issues.
2) The diagnosis by the Peña Nieto government regarding the origins of violence reduces the administration's leeway even more. Implicitly and explicitly, new officials have attributed the increase in crime rate to the policy and management of the previous administration, without leaving room for other explanatory factors (economic, demographic, social, etc.). Therefore, if violence was the fault of the Calderon government, violence, if it persists, will be the government's fault under Peña Nieto.
3) For several months, it will be possible to shift responsibility to the Calderon government for elevated levels of violence. However, that explanation will wear over time. At some point in 2013, "Peña Nieto's war" will launch, meaning that homicides, kidnappings and extortion will become the current administration's full responsibility. Given the various expressions of concern that surged following the publication of Reforma and Milenio's respective counts of December's homicides, it's likely that this moment will come sooner rather than later. (Given that these homicide statistics, which were registered during the holiday period and are bad but not catastrophic, were able to generate reactions of this kind, I don't want to think about what will happen in reaction to the accumulation of bad news over several months).
4) The security policy announced thus far has long maturation periods. For example, in order to make the Gendarmerie operational, legislative changes, regulatory modifications, the acquisition or transfer of equipment, and installation designs, are needed, among other requirements. Those processes will eat up most of 2013, at least. The same goes for the strengthening of the Attorney General's Office (PGR) or the consolidation of the state police. There is nothing, in fact, in the strategy espoused by the government that allows for the anticipation of a dramatic improvement in security conditions in a politically relevant time frame (meaning before the mid-term elections in 2015).
5) At some point over the following 18 months, it will become clear that the Peña Nieto government will face the mid-term federal elections with 45,000 homicides under its arm (at least). In that sense, the administration will probably try a discursive shift: less emphasis on violence reduction, more on process indicators (number of certified police, number of states with completed penal reform, etc.), or in metrics related to combating organized crime (arrests, seizures, eradication, etc.). Maybe we won't have to wait too long to see this shift: in the press conference organized by the Interior Ministry last week, they talked about everything except homicides, kidnappings, and extortion.
6) A shift of that nature would, however, have a clear cost. Speaking like Calderon would mean implicitly validating Calderon or, at least, his theory that there were few practical alternatives to his security policy. By definition, the possibilities of making a difference would disappear with the National Action Party (PAN) administration. But not changing track, when you have less than spectacular results in terms of violence reduction, could be catastrophic: (a) it would undermine the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) main asset, the public perception of effectiveness, and (b) it would improve, by contrast, the image of the previous government (and the PAN).
7) One exit from that trap is to try unorthodox measures, such as the Salvadoran gang truce, a demobilization like that negotiated in Colombia, an explicit strategy of targeted deterrence as put forward by Mark Kleiman. None of these guarantee success (and all would have associated costs), but at least they would open up the possibility, however remote, of dramatic improvement in the short term. There is no suggestion, however, that those responsible for security in the new government are thinking about these types of alternatives.
8) Another possibility is trying to modulate the expectations, announcing that great results should not be expected during the first half of the administration. This would allow some room for maneuver, but wouldn't entirely eliminate the wear of daily violence (following a massacre, for example, the government can't say "bear with me for two more years") and it would dent the image of PRI effectiveness. (How can it be an effective government team if it's unable to show concrete results before the fourth year of the administration?).
9) In sum, the question isn't about whether violence is going to weaken the Peña Nieto government, but rather how much and how fast it will. I do not know, but I suspect that much of the country's political future depends on the answer.
*Translated and reprinted with permission from Alejandro Hope, of Plata o Plomo, a blog on the politics and economics of drugs and crime published by Animal Politico. Read the Spanish original here. Hope is also a member of InSight Crime's Board of Directors.