With Mexico’s July 1 presidential elections promising a shift in the country’s security strategy, InSight Crime looks at the policies of likely winner Enrique Peña Nieto, and the inheritance he will have to deal with, in the first of a two-part series.

The Front-Runner and his Inheritance

Barring a major upset, the winner of Mexico’s presidential election on July 1 will be Enrique Peña Nieto, a former governor of Mexico State and the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). (The candidate of President Felipe Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN) stands in either a distant second or third place, according to polls.) Peña Nieto’s record on crime is mixed. During his time as governor, from 2005 to 2011, Peña Nieto’s state managed to avoid the massive increase in murders suffered by much of the rest of the country. His government also dealt a series of crippling blows to the Mano con Ojos, a gang that had taken to leaving decapitated heads around the region, arresting its leader in 2011. Furthermore, unlike in many parts of the country, it was not the federal government that led the charge against the Mano con Ojos, but Peña Nieto’s administration, under the leadership of state Attorney General Alfredo Castillo.

However, while the murder rate did not rise dramatically, other crime indices in Mexico State spiked under Peña Nieto. As many outlets have noted, violent attacks on women, including rape and murder, shot up. The number of reported robberies increased by almost 50 percent during his time in office (2005-2011), while kidnappings quadrupled in the first four years. Organized criminal groups have increasingly turned to these crimes in recent years, and their increase could be interpreted as a spike in the activity of Mexico’s more sophisticated criminal syndicates in Mexico State during Peña Nieto’s term.

If Peña Nieto wins, the most important trends he will likely inherit when he takes office on December 1 is a slowdown in the rate of violence. As Calderon bragged in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, murders linked to organized crime were down 12 percent during the first five months of 2012 compared to the same period last year. Other more objective sources report similar improvements. The new calm has been most notable in Juarez, previously among the most dangerous cities on the globe. While it remains violent, the notorious border city is currently on pace to finish the year with its lowest number of killings since 2007.

Other trends are not so positive. The criminal landscape is far more fractured and unstable than it was five or 10 years ago. Rather than a half-dozen quasi-military cartels dominating the nation, today hegemonic groups are losing ground to a chaotic tangle of regional upstarts, the Mano con Ojos being a prime example. The growth of these smaller gangs is a force for instability, as their relative weakness leads to confrontations with other gangs. Both the larger networks and the smaller gangs are now more likely to be involved in activities outside the drug trade, such as extortion, which are often far more dangerous for the civilian population.

While the government can influence these trends, they are dictated by dynamics within the Mexican underworld. Peña Nieto’s administration would not be able to swiftly or single-handedly reverse cartels’ move into extortion and kidnapping, nor would it be able to bring back the calmer landscape of the 1980s, when one or two cartels dominated. It would also be unable to quickly bring murders linked to organized crime back to their pre-Calderon levels, though it will surely take credit if the trend towards a more peaceful equilibrium continues. Peña Nieto isn’t starting with a clean slate, but is seeking to affect various trends that have been developing for many years.

The Next President’s Reforms

Peña Nieto has set out a number of conceptual and organizational changes he would make to Mexico’s security policy. One of the biggests contrasts with Calderon’s policy is that the former governor says he would prioritize lowering the rates of murder, kidnapping, and extortion, as opposed to focusing on arresting the most notorious traffickers or interdicting drug shipments

This position has been gaining strength in Mexico, thanks in large part to peace movements like that of Javier Sicilia and, more fundamentally, the enormous increase in violence since Calderon took office. Certainly, it would be a positive development if the federal government made reducing violence a priority. By contrast, the current government has justified the sharp increase in violence by explaining that this is a necessary stage, as weakened gangs battle one another and the government.

However, Peña Nieto has offered little sense of how exactly he would reduce those crimes. This raises concerns that his strategy is endowed with little more than some laudable instincts. Since Peña Nieto has not articulated an argument as to why Calderon’s policies have failed to reduce such crimes — which, after all, he also has an interest in doing — it is far from certain that his approach would be much more effective in cutting violence.

In terms of police reform, Peña Nieto has proposed centralizing the sub-federal forces, a plan often described as the “mando unico.” He has also suggested creating a national gendarmerie, a militarized force under civilian control, that would be responsible for policing some of the most dangerous cities in the country.

A version of the mando unico has long been championed by Calderon, and the obvious advantage is that it would sideline the notoriously ineffective and corruption-riddled municipal police. Yet, as InSight Crime and others have pointed out, a mando unico reform is far from a magic bullet. Furthermore, it’s not clear how the gendarmerie would be an improvement from the federal police or the armed forces, the bodies that today patrol much of the country. Under Peña Nieto’s plan, the police would be more centralized and likely better coordinated, but such a reform would not suddenly result in well-trained forces where today’s are hapless, nor would a mando unico remove the incentives that lead crooked police to work with criminals. Much would depend on how it was carried out, but one concern is that today’s corrupt, incompetent local police would not be purged, but would merely exchange their municipal badge for a state police version.

It’s also quite possible that Peña Nieto will be unable to pass his reforms. After all, Calderon has been pushing the idea of a mando unico for years, yet, thanks to a majority-opposition Congress, it has gone nowhere. Should the PRI fall short of a congressional majority, which according to most polls is likely, Peña Nieto may have no more luck in pulling off a vast reorganization than Calderon did.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Peña Nieto emphasized the need to straighten out the bottlenecks in Mexico’s justice system. This is entirely sensible. Roughly 40 percent of Mexico’s prison population has not been sentenced, and violent criminals are often housed side by side with petty crooks. As a consequence, the overstuffed jails have turned into one of the principal sources of mayhem in Mexico. They are often controlled by the criminals themselves, with escapes and mass killings growing far more common over the past several years.

However, Peña Nieto’s comments on the issue were far too vague to give much of a sense of how serious he is about the issue, or how likely he is to achieve change. Calderon’s landmark 2008 judicial reform has the potential to be a lever of a far more effective system, but its implementation has stagnated and its impact has yet to manifest itself. Were Peña Nieto to identify precisely why the reform has been unsuccessful, where its provisions have not been met or where they fell short of what was necessary, his promises to unblock the clogged judicial system might inspire more confidence.

Read part II of InSight Crime’s series on the Mexican presidential election.