Short and long-term ideas for the next administration to address criminal violence
By Patrick Corcoran
Mexico enters the 2018 presidential campaign on the heels of the most violent year in its recent history. But notwithstanding the urgency of the challenge, the candidates have been unable to voice coherent proposals to confront an increasingly fragmented and violent criminal landscape.
While the initial years of the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto suggested Mexico had turned a corner in its efforts to overcome longstanding security challenges, the situation at the close of his six-year term suggests just the opposite.
After a three-year rise in murders, 2017 was the most violent year in Mexico’s recent history. The more than 29,000 murders registered by the National Public Security System represented a 27% jump from 2016, and a nearly 60% increase since 2014. As is usually the case, organized crime was the chief driver of this wave of bloodshed.
Surprisingly, rising insecurity has played a muted role in the current presidential campaign, which will culminate with July’s elections. While the leading candidates have all made some reference to the worsening situation, their comments have failed to present a compelling alternative to merely muddling through.
The current frontrunner, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) — widely known by his initials AMLO — made waves several weeks ago with his suggestion of amnesty for members of organized crime groups. But the comment seemed more like thinking out loud than a concrete proposal.
Ricardo Anaya of the National Action Party (PAN) called for “fundamental changes” to the current strategy in a recent speech, but included no suggestion of what those would be.
José Antonio Meade, the candidate from the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), recently called for a crackdown on criminal groups’ arsenals, though he offered little suggestion of how he would do so.
None of these candidates’ rhetoric has presented a comprehensive approach to what has been one of Mexico’s most persistent challenges this century. So what should the next president do? InSight Crime presents several short-term and long-term suggestions to the incoming presidential administration for how to tackle criminal violence.
Near-term proposals - Avoid grand solutions
Mexico’s last two presidents came into office with grand ideas of how to revolutionize the nation’s approach to security. Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels days into his tenure, while Enrique Peña Nieto sought to deemphasize the struggle while paying lip service to violence reduction. Both administrations presented several wise initiatives within this broad framework, but the overall strategic objective was simple, if not simplistic.
Broadly speaking, both of these approaches failed. Calderón and Peña Nieto both left a nation more violent than they inherited it, achieving the opposite of the ideal and contributing to a decade of growing insecurity.
Mexico’s recent administrations appear to have failed to fully appreciate that worsening violence cannot be solved through one great strategic fix. Rather, it is an issue of countless moving parts, each of which must be targeted in conjunction with the rest. Focusing on a grand strategy to the detriment of addressing key details is not a recipe for success.
Improve policing, not police institutions
One of Mexico’s most venerable political rituals is a new president launching a sweeping reform to federal police bodies. Vicente Fox sought to create a Mexican version of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) known as the Agencia Federal de Investigación (AFI); Felipe Calderón oversaw a federal police reorganization that did away with the AFI; Peña Nieto launched a gendarmerie.
These reforms appear to correspond more to a new leader’s desire to put his stamp on the executive branch, rather than a careful assessment of the problems with the police. Despite the massive investment of money and manpower, these changes led to virtually no long-term improvements.
That is not to say that Mexico’s police do not need improving; they clearly do. But Mexico’s next president should start from the bottom, and provide support for the individual officers rather than reorganizing the overarching structures.
“The low regard police officers receive from the community is just appalling,” a former high-ranking intelligence official told InSight Crime. “Nobody pays any respect to them. That has negative effects on their performance.”
The same official pointed to several examples where concerted efforts to improve the poor opinion of police has had an impact, including state police in the northern state of Nuevo León and municipal police in several northern cities.
“They are offered much better terms, a better sense of worth, and they start responding to that,” he said. “They get better pay, better benefits, better education and the community responds.”
Focus on the local
Improving police capacity goes hand in hand with another long-overlooked need: better endowing of local authorities with the tools to ensure their own security. From Monterrey to Acapulco, from Veracruz to Ciudad Juárez, unique local dynamics tend to weigh heavily on crime rates, even in a country with national criminal rivalries.
Calderón’s and Peña Nieto’s crime policies failed to sufficiently take this into account, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University and the author of a recent book about the Zetas.
“They didn’t pay attention to details,” Correa-Cabrera told InSight Crime. “They didn’t plan for each group; they made it national.”
Ignorance of local dynamics has been equally evident in how recent administrations have deployed their own resources. For many years, the default approach in dealing with areas that are boiling over has been to send in the army and Federal Police. This often federalizes what are largely local problems.
“The big problem is that the bet has been on the federal level, the military, the gendarmes, without thinking about capacity at the local level,” Sandra Ley, a professor at Mexico City’s Center for Economic Research and Development (CIDE), told InSight Crime. “How do we help our mayors and our local bureaucracies to understand how to use databases, to build intelligence capacities?”
Such an effort, of course, goes hand in hand with a drive to improve the working conditions of local police officers.
End the kingpin strategy
Mexican leaders have, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, pursued the kingpin strategy for decades. Efforts to target top crime bosses were at the forefront of the Calderón approach, with the federal government publishing names of the foremost capos and celebrating their demise.
With less fanfare, Presidents Peña Nieto and Fox largely abided by the same guiding principal: the most powerful criminals were the highest priorities.
The problem with this approach is that “success” begets more violence, as a fallen capo’s erstwhile lieutenants and rivals scramble to fill the vacuum left by his departure.
Experts consulted by InSight Crime were unanimous in their hope that the next president would abandon this philosophy. David Shirk, the director of the University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico project, told InSight Crime, “We’ve tried to take out top guys, and every time we had, it has backfired in some unpredicted way . . . The first thing we need to do is move away from that approach that causes chaos and causes violence in the drug trade.”
Echoing Shirk’s thoughts, Ley emphasized the resilience of criminal organizations. “This kingpin decapitation strategy doesn’t work. It feeds rising levels of violence, because organized crime reorganizes itself,” she said.
Attacking the most powerful criminals has a superficial logic, but it reflects a lack of consideration and reflection. Such a philosophy manifestly does not contribute to a safer Mexico, and its existence for another six years would represent a barrier to violence reduction.
Resist US dogmas
The kingpin strategy is but one of many reflections of Mexico’s close security relationship with the United States. Others include an obsession on reduction of drug supply, and a corresponding lack of emphasis on reducing demand for drugs.
U.S. policymakers have also long resisted treating the drug trade as a public health problem, and have eschewed efforts to address social problems that help fuel organized crime. The militarization of Mexico’s criminal strategy has also coincided with U.S. instincts, if not its overt policy preferences.
This deference has prevented many Latin American nations, Mexico prominently included, from pursuing policies that diverged from American expectations.
But the possible election of AMLO, a left-leaning populist and two-time presidential runner-up, could upend the decades of lockstep policy thinking emanating from Mexico City and Washington.
“If AMLO wins, it’s a great opportunity to challenge the dominant thinking and approach behind the drug war,” Shirk said, adding that Mexico should “reassess cooperation with the U.S., and do so on Mexican terms.”
This is not to say that bilateral cooperation should be dismissed, but the guiding objective of all such collaboration should be Mexico’s security interests. And from the kingpin strategy to the Mérida Initiative, too often this has not been the case.
Go after domestic drug use
The popular image of Mexico’s drug trade is one of multinational, militarized organizations seeking territory in order to protect the profits stemming from U.S. consumption. While there is plenty of truth to that, much of the increase in crime stems from local drug markets.
A recent report from the San Diego Union Tribune described retail drug sales, feeding the local consumer market, as driving a record year for murders in 2017. According to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent quoted in the story, selling drugs on Tijuana streets is more lucrative than shipping them to the United States. Local drug markets have played a similar and an under-appreciated role in driving violence in many cities around the country.
Such anecdotes square with studies of Mexico’s growing fondness for drugs. The most recent National Survey of Drug, Alcohol, and Tobacco Consumption shows dramatic rises in illicit drug use over the past seven years. The proportion of adult Mexicans who had tried drugs once increased by 47% during the period, while the figure for 12 to 17-year-olds spiked by 125%.
Should such figures continue to rise, the profits from Mexico’s local drug market will increasingly lure the nation’s criminal groups into conflict.
Mexico’s next president should make undercutting rising drug use a top priority. Other nations that have long struggled with higher levels of drug use provide a number of lessons. One promising model is Hawaii’s Honest Opportunity Probation With Enforcement (HOPE) program, which obliges certain convicts to undergo regular drug testing and imposes nearly immediate but mild penalties for those who fail, such as a 48-hour stint in jail.
The combination of certainty and swiftness serves as a powerful disincentive — drug use among participants plummeted — while the light penalties save money and avoid adding to a bloated prison population.
Continue judicial reform
Mexico passed a landmark judicial reform in 2008 which restructured the nation’s trial system, standardized police procedures and created alternative mechanisms for adjudicating certain crimes. The implementation period came to a close in 2016, and the reform has generated frustration both for specific shortcomings and for a general sense that it has failed to transform the nation’s security situation.
While some of the criticism is warranted, the judicial reform remains Mexico’s best bet to modernize and professionalize its criminal justice system. Recent studies of the system’s new features reveal steady progress and growing confidence among employees of the judiciary.
A fully reformed judicial system won’t solve Mexico’s security challenges alone, but it will do as much as any initiative currently under way to establish the conditions necessary for an enduring transformation.
Improving the judiciary should also not be limited to the provisions in the 2008 reform. Shirk, who has extensively researched the reform’s implementation and impact, called for continued efforts to improve the capacity of the men and women who populate the criminal justice system.
“There are a lot of talented attorneys out there who would love to be prosecutors but can’t get their foot in the door,” he told InSight Crime. “There would have to be national or state-level competitions to inject new blood into these prosecutors’ offices.”
Target social ills
Over the past two administrations, Mexico has begun to pay grudging attention to the role of social ills in driving insecurity. The issue initially played virtually no role in Calderón’s highly militarized approach, though the Todos Somos Juárez (We Are All [Ciudad] Juárez) program, which the federal government launched in 2008 amid record levels of violence in the border city, incorporated elements focusing on social factors in local crime.
While it was not a centerpiece of his strategy either, Peña Nieto increased the federal government’s emphasis on social drivers of insecurity. He oversaw the launch of the National Program for the Social Prevention of Crime (Pronapred), which was aimed at creating a national policy toward crime prevention.
Some research suggests that Pronapred was hampered by poor targeting (it largely ignores young people who already have a criminal record, a group that should be the highest priority). The program’s impact was also limited by insufficient evaluation methods, creating uncertainty about which ideas had success and which did not. And most worrying, a key federal funding subsidy was eliminated in 2017, leaving the program’s future in doubt.
Where possible, such programs should be refined and expanded. The most violent areas in Mexico require an immediate government response that focuses on reestablishing the rule of law, but the efforts to triage bleeding wounds should not come at the expense of investing in future prevention.
Attack dirty money
Organized crime generates billions of dollars of illicit income every year, much of which flows into the legitimate economy.
This creates a delicate problem for Mexico, because an overly robust attack on money that has criminal origins will surely create unforeseen side effects and harm innocent people. While the so-called myth of the ninja accountant retains many adherents, the reality is that a near-term crackdown on traffickers’ money may create further incentives for criminality and violence.
Faced with decreasing profit margins, criminal groups would be encouraged to compensate through increased volume. This would mean more trafficking, more extortion, more kidnapping and more competition among different groups for a shrinking pool of revenue.
At the same time, in the long term, gradually reducing the freedom with which criminal groups launder their profits and enjoy the fruits of their work can help reduce the influence of organized crime.
One obvious place to start is targeting corruption among political leaders, particularly those suspected of working with criminal groups. Over the past decade, more than 20 Mexican governors have been implicated in corruption cases in Mexico and the United States, most of them involving payments from criminal groups.
Much of this corruption was an open secret for years. Many of the officials who are today under investigation flaunted unexplained wealth. (In one case reported by InSight Crime, family members and front men of a fugitive Mexican governor acquired millions of dollars in Texas real estate.)
The fact that such cases proliferated speaks to a lack of will or lack of attention from the relevant federal agencies. Under the next administration, Mexican authorities should do more to monitor political officials’ bank records, shell companies and foreign investments.
Such an initiative may not have a direct impact on violence, but it would promote cleaner government. Such efforts would also help isolate organized crime from the political system, and therefore allow politicians greater leeway in going after criminals.
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