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AQ Feature

No: Mexican Homicide and Crime Rates Remain High

Homicide and overall crime rates remain staggeringly high, while the government has done little to address the roots of insecurity.

As a presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto promised “adjustments,” rather than any major changes, to the security strategy of the outgoing administration—and that is precisely what he has delivered as president. While there have been subtle—and not so subtle—shifts from the policies pursued by former President Felipe Calderón, there has not been a clear break with the past.

The same overall strategy is producing the same grim results. While homicides have decreased by 25 percent from a peak during Calderón’s presidency in 2011, they remain at staggeringly high levels: last year Mexico’s homicide rate was five times that of the United States. The number of reported kidnappings that year was at a record high, and preliminary results for 2014 remain comparably bleak. Extortion has now also become something of an epidemic: according to the latest national victimization survey, there were close to 8 million extortion attempts in 2013.

Although there is less bellicose rhetoric in what amounts to a kinder, gentler version of the Calderón strategy, no one should confuse rhetoric with reality. Two years into his six-year term, there has been some policy innovation, but Peña Nieto has failed to substantively change the policy approach set by his predecessor. In fact, the current administration is actually deepening and entrenching the previous administration’s strategy in at least six key areas.

The most conclusive evidence of continuity is provided by the federal budget. Security expenditures continue to be high—and are getting higher. Under Calderón, the federal security budget doubled in real terms from $6 billion in 2006 to $12 billion in 2012. Based on current trends, the budget will likely double again under Peña Nieto. The Interior Ministry saw its budget increase by 17 percent in 2014 alone. Appropriations for the Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional (Center for Research and National Security—CISEN), Mexico’s civilian intelligence agency, tripled this year. These federal expenditures fail to address the key to reducing crimes like homicide and kidnapping—increasing state and local capacity.

Another vestige of the Calderón administration concerns the growing ranks of the federal armed forces and their involvement in state and local law enforcement activities, ranging from patrolling streets to detaining alleged criminals. Under Calderón, the Federal Police tripled in size; and its numbers have increased by 18 percent since Peña Nieto took office, thanks to the recent addition of the Gendarmería Nacional (National Gendarmerie), a 5,000-strong division introduced this August. And while the number of deployed troops has declined somewhat—from around 45,000 under Calderón to 35,000 currently—the absence of competent state police forces in many regions leaves no immediate substitute for the army and navy. As a result, states and localities are simply passing the buck on enforcement to federal forces, and are not being held accountable for reforming inefficiencies or purging corrupt officers.

Open-ended and heavy-handed federal operations in troubled states have not ended. Indeed, current federal intervention is arguably more intrusive than it was under Calderón. In Michoacán, for example, Peña Nieto sent a federal commissioner, endowed with broad powers, who has become governor in all but name, effectively depriving michoacanos of their right to elected representation. In Tamaulipas, the state security apparatus was taken over by the armed forces. In the State of Mexico, the state prosecutor and the state police chief were replaced by operatives of the Peña Nieto administration. While effective in the short term, this type of intervention creates a culture of dependence on federal forces, and returning control to an incapacitated state apparatus risks undoing temporary security gains.

Peña Nieto has stressed that reducing criminal violence and homicides, not dismantling criminal gangs, is his top security priority. However, his government has not been above trumpeting major operational victories, including taking down drug kingpins. In fact, the current president has been quite successful at it: over the past 20 months, a number of major criminal figures—including Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the fugitive chief of the Sinaloa cartel—have been captured or killed. While these victories offer an ideal public relations opportunity, they can create power vacuums within the cartels. The result can be a shift from more predictable, hierarchical power structures to local ones that are more predatory and harder to destabilize.

Mexican security agencies also continue to maintain strong ties with their U.S. counterparts. Cooperation between both nations has become more discreet and centralized, but there has been no return to the pre-Calderón era. For example, the fingerprints of the U.S. intelligence community were all over the operation to capture Chapo Guzmán. Meanwhile, the Merida Initiative—a partnership between the U.S. and Mexico to combat organized crime in effect since 2008—is still active, and many U.S.-funded institution-building programs continue to operate. Such bilateral cooperation can and has improved some aspects of Mexico’s security picture, but the U.S. often pushes Mexican federal forces to prioritize catching the big fish, instead of investing time and resources into local-level reform and institution-building—both of which are necessary for long-term security.

While most security trends have continued from Calderón’s administration through Peña Nieto’s, the current president has changed direction on two main issues. First, there has been a significant overhaul of the federal security apparatus’s centralized administrative structure. Peña Nieto has restored the central role of the Interior Ministry, which absorbed the Public Security Ministry. This gives Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong control over the Federal Police and the federal penitentiary system and made him the head of the national security cabinet (both de jure and de facto).

Second, Peña Nieto has made progress on coordination among security-related government agencies. As a result, the interagency bickering and backstabbing that characterized the Calderón era has ended. The more centralized management style of the current administration and the significant powers entrusted to the interior minister have led to greatly improved coordination at the federal level. To some extent, the same can be said for intergovernmental relations. With some major exceptions, the friction that marked Calderon’s relationship with state governors is gone. The fact that 23 out of 32 governors belong to the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) certainly helps.

But substantively improving the security outlook requires more than improved coordination and greater media savvy. It demands broad reform of law enforcement and criminal justice institutions at every level of government. Such efforts were very timid under Calderón and have been sorely missing under Peña Nieto. That is the sort of continuity Mexico certainly does not need.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: U.S.-Mexico border, Border security, Enrique Peña Nieto

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