HomeNewsAnalysisWhat to Keep, What to Throw Away from Calderon Presidency

What to Keep, What to Throw Away from Calderon Presidency


The exit of Felipe Calderon from the Mexican presidency on December 1 marks the end of an era in the country's battles with organized crime. Now Enrique Peña Nieto must build his own strategy on top of the framework left behind by his predecessor.

As InSight Crime pointed out during the election campaign, succeeding Calderon presents a number of challenges on security. On the one hand, in terms of violence, Calderon's results have been abominable. Nationally, the number of murders has almost doubled from Calderon's first year in 2007 (10,253 nationwide), to 2012 (22,480), according to the National System of Public Security.

The rate of increase in some of the more violence-wracked cities has been far more dramatic. Juarez, to take the most extreme example, was among the world's most violent cities from 2008 to 2011, and its murder rate topped out at roughly 300 per 100,000 residents in 2010. The failures of the Calderon strategy are not evident merely in the murder rate: crimes like kidnapping, extortion, and carjacking have also spiked in much of the nation.

[See InSight Crime's two-part series on Peña Nieto's election]

At the same time, while citizens around the country clamored for a safer nation, they were mostly in favor of his policies, at least in the abstract. Poll after poll has shown that Mexicans support an aggressive approach to organized crime, and that they back the use of the military in domestic security by wide margins. Moreover, if the downside to Calderon's approach is violence, it's not clear how much leverage Peña Nieto has to diminish the violence in the near term.

As he prepares to take office, it now falls to Peña Nieto to reconcile the competing sides of the calderonista security dichotomy: broadly popular policies on the one hand, violent results on the other.

As he pursues those goals, Peña Nieto would do well to avoid four pitfalls that ensnared Calderon.

Organizational changes: Peña Nieto is reportedly planning to dissolve the Ministry of Public Security -- which was created in 2000 and has emerged, under current boss Genaro Garcia Luna, as a focal point of the anti-crime strategy -- and fold it under the Ministry of the Interior. Furthermore, Peña Nieto has previously broached the creation of a national gendarmerie, a federal force that would buttress local forces in violent regions.

Such reorganizations are a constant feature of Mexican presidential administrations. Calderon, for instance, consolidated the Agencia Federal de Investigacion (AFI) and the Policia Federal Preventiva. He also pushed a proposal to abolish the municipal police forces, and centralize their replacements under state command. Vicente Fox, in turn, created the AFI in 2001. Their predecessors have carried out broadly similar reforms for generations.

Unfortunately, while reorganizations allow presidents to point to conspicuous accomplishments, in and of themselves, they do not represent any meaningful progress. They are typically little more than a distraction; the efforts needed to pass legislation and then create the new force would be better spent investing in the existing police bodies and addressing their specific shortcomings. Merely creating a new body does nothing to ensure that said shortcomings will disappear, a lesson Mexico, and Peña Nieto, looks likely to ignore once more.

Lack of consensus: Calderon famously launched his first military deployment less than two weeks after taking office. Such a move demonstrated resolve and decisiveness, but it basically sidelined all of the other political parties, and removed the possibility of a broad base of support for his crime strategies. When the violence leaped higher and Calderon's policies grew more controversial, his lack of interest in consensus turned into a millstone: none of his adversaries had any political stake in Calderon's success, so his strategy became just another venue in which to attack the president.

Hopefully, Peña Nieto will have learned from his predecessor's mistake. Should he devote more time to securing the support of rivals from the beginning, combating organized crime could be removed from the realm of political point-scoring, as it should be.

Disinterest in public relations: The public relations approach to Calderon's crime policies was a muddled disaster. His team leaped from one argument to another in justifying his policies, often contradicting one another. Calderon did not release a formal strategy to the public until halfway through 2010. The president and his team were perennially reactive, and often seemed to be trailing the media in setting the agenda. They also waffled on how much information to give the public, leaving the job of scorekeeper to the newspapers.

Public relations are not a substitute for results, and given the rise in crime rates, Calderon's policies were inevitably controversial. However, a more coherent explanation and justification for his approach would have reduced the need for the administration to constantly put out fires, and would have allowed them to take a more measured (and likely more efficient) approach.

Department infighting: Virtually any government will have different power bases fighting for control over the president's ear, and often this natural rivalry breeds healthy competition. However, the healthy competition bled into ugly feuds during Calderon's term. The army is suspected of mucking up the arrest of the PRI heavyweight Jorge Hank Rhon in order to embarrass the PGR, Mexico's Justice Department. Attorney General Marisela Morales and Public Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna reportedly required Calderon to end a shouting match at a recent cabinet meeting. The overall sense from the administration is not separate agencies working competitively toward the same goal, but rather a dysfunctional group in which officials target their counterparts with more gusto than their criminal adversaries.

Dependence on the military: Calderon unleashed the military on organized crime. However, in places where they were deployed the violence increased. Equally troubling was that the administration seemed to abdicate power, allowing the military to fight its brand of war without any oversight. As a result, Mexico faced international scrutiny and a rising number of complaints filed to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights about disappearances and torture by security forces.  

Peña Nieto needs the military, especially as police reform continues at a snail's pace. However, he needs to reinforce the parts that work, such as the Navy's capacity to take down kingpins. What's more, the military cannot police itself. It needs more outside monitors embedded in the areas where the military has been deployed and has regular clashes with organized criminal groups. Most of all, he needs to stop reinforcing the notion that someone who dies is someone who was "guilty." All deaths need to be investigated, regardless of the circumstances. 

At the same time, many of Calderon's initiatives were philosophically sound, and simply require more patience or persistence. Here are four policy programs Peña Nieto should continue, if not deepen.

Judicial reform: The 2008 judicial reform (See Transborder Institute's report - pdf) is Calderon's most significant accomplishment in the security realm, and the one that will have the longest lasting benefit. It has already started to radically reshape the way Mexico conducts its trials, providing for oral trials and the presumption of innocence, and includes numerous changes to investigative procedures as well. When fully implemented, the reform could be a vital cog to a more efficient, effective process to deal with the nation's criminals.

However, the reform's implementation, which was to take place over eight years, has been stunted by a lack of funding. In many regions, the scale of the violence has overwhelmed the local criminal justice systems, and made it impossible to keep up with the schedule for implementation.

Police vetting: The Calderon administration has championed a thorough vetting process for state, municipal, and federal police officers. These including polygraph tests, drug tests, and asset monitoring. Unfortunately, the pace of the vetting has been painfully slow, especially at the state level, something that has provoked criticism from the federal government.

Ultimately, the resources stem from some combination of lack of will and lack of resources. To correct this, Peña Nieto should deepen Calderon's initial efforts. His team should institutionalize vetting procedures and make them a constant feature of employment in the police department. Officers at every level should expect random, frequent drug and polygraph tests. Local, state, and federal police should all be staffed with robust internal affairs departments, while prosecutors should be encouraged to go after corrupt cops.

Bilateral cooperation: Cooperation with the US is not the solution to Mexico's security problems. Ultimately, Mexico's security challenges must be solved from within, and any description of collaboration as a panacea is gravely mistaken.

Nonetheless, though it carries certain risks, US-Mexico cooperation can be of great help on the margins, whether with training, equipment transfers, or intelligence sharing. Calderon did much to enhance the relationship between the two nations, with the Merida Initiative serving as the clearest, though not the only, example of the deeper relationship. While Peña Nieto should avoid a blind faith in US guidance, the increased level of confidence has, as a whole, been a positive development.

Targeting kingpins: As InSight Crime has pointed out, targeting the foremost capos in and of itself is not a sufficient strategy. Inevitably, the fallen capo's organization replaces him with one of his subordinates, the group falls to pieces or rival groups absorb the market share. In nearly all these cases, this process also tends to create more violence.

Nonetheless, a successful nation cannot ignore its most violent criminals, simply giving them a free pass by virtue of accumulating so much power. The reason countries like the US and Italy no longer have capos who rival Joaquin Guzman in their stature is that ambitious criminals are typically arrested long before they rise to such heights. For too long, Mexico was lenient on its kingpins, and Calderon's administration -- which published a list of 37 capos in 2009 and has since arrested or killed 25 of them -- has reverted that unfortunate tendency. Peña Nieto should follow his example, even while he redistributes his resources towards other ends.

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