U.S.-Mexico Presidential Summit: From Empathy To Security Cooperation Specifics

When Enrique Peña Nieto meets on January 6 with Barack Obama, the Mexican president should, as a minimum, be able to count on empathy from the U.S. president. Obama had hoped that by now he would have extricated the United States from multiple wars in order to focus on “nation building” at home. Instead, he has to deal with a revived insurgency in Iraq and a persisting one in Afghanistan as well as a global array of terrorist threats. Peña Nieto wanted to walk away from the war on drug cartels in order to concentrate on Mexico’s economic and social issues. Instead, he finds himself pulled back to the fight with the cartels and Mexico’s deep-seated security and rule of law problems. White House empathy with Peña Nieto’s plight, however, needs to be translated into a joint emphasis on adjusting and improving ineffective anti-crime policies in order to reduce violence and lessen corruption.

Indeed, among the issues discussed by the two presidents – immigration reform in the United States and migration more broadly, economic competitiveness, trade and investment – security and justice issues in Mexico and U.S.-Mexico anti-crime cooperation will be featured far more prominently than when the two men first met. That is particularly bitter for Peña Nieto and spoils the joint commiseration. In the early months of his administration, he was keen to rebalance the U.S.-Mexico relationship away from security, putting the United States on notice and telling many U.S. security advisors and intelligence agents operating in Mexico to go packing. Ironically, many of the prominent arrests of drug capos in Mexico that have taken place during the Peña Nieto administration, including that of Chapo Guzmán, have been crucially facilitated by continuing U.S. intelligence. Overall, the security and rule of law situation in Mexico, however, remains stuck in decades-old institutional problems and deficiencies of policies adopted by both Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, and Peña Nieto himself.

Peña Nieto’s Accomplishments Overshadowed by Mexico’s Unresolved Security Situation

The Mexican president has delivered important socio-economic accomplishments. Among others, he got a major oil reform law passed that will enable badly-needed foreign investment in oil and shale gas in Mexico. He successfully took on the powerful teachers’ union and passed some equally-badly-needed educational reforms. Yet both in the public perception and in reality, these accomplishments are overshadowed by the unresolved security situation in Mexico and its broader context of corruption, impunity and the lack of rule of law.

For example, the state with some of the greatest shale gas reserves – Tamaulipas – became one of Mexico’s most violent areas in 2014, rife with murders, attacks on government officials as well as ordinary citizens and American visitors – an uninviting prospect for foreign investors. Peña Nieto’s decision to send a large military-federal police contingent to the state, mimicking the policies of his predecessor Felipe Calderón, has so far not produced palpable improvements to security. In fact, as I argue in my recent report on Peña Nieto’s anti-crime policy “Changing the Game or Dropping the Ball?” many of the law enforcement policies adopted by the Peña Nieto administration, including non-prioritized non-strategic high-value targeting, continue to produce fragmentation and infighting in Mexico’s criminal market, thus fueling violence – like in Tamaulipas.

The state of Michoacán – in many ways a symbol of the war on the cartels where both Calderón and Peña Nieto sent large military deployments early in their administrations – remained in 2014 one of Mexico’s most violent, along with Tamaulipas and the state of Mexico. Michoacán’s “anti-cartel” self-defense militias, often permeated by criminal groups and themselves tempted by the power of their weapons to engage in illicit rackets, have not been adequately restrained by being rolled into the state’s official Rural Defense Corps. Just last month, its two most prominent factions – of Luis Antonio Torres and Hipolito Mora – have again shot at each other, leaving 11 dead. (At least the two leaders have now turned themselves in.)

In places where violence has subsided from peak levels and some of which used to be bloodbaths on par with Iraq and Afghanistan – Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, and Monterrey – better anti-crime policies and civil society mobilization has helped. But to a large extent, the greater calm there is one of narcopeace—the victory of either the Sinaloa or Gulf Cartel over sufficient territory in the city. Thus, the job there is not finished, and the reduced violence is at the discretion of the cartels, not because the state has been sufficiently strengthened and law enforcement now has deterrence capacity.

The Mexican Public’s Reenergized Demand for Better Public Safety and Rule of Law

But it was the 2014 massacres in Tlatlaya and Iguala that ignited public anger at Peña Nieto’s security policies – or their lack of. Until these two tragedies, the Mexican public was very willing to follow the lead of Los Piños (the seat of the Mexican presidency) and turn away from the unfinished and resolved security issues and focus on their socio-economic struggles. The escalating violence of the Calderón era, the callousness of the Calderón administration that sought to dismiss the bloodshed as a sign of effectiveness, the endless parade of captured high-value traffickers, and the many presumably watershed moments – the shooting up of young people at a party in Ciudad Juárez, the fire at the Monterrey casino, mass graves of Central American migrants – left the Mexican public exhausted.

But the horror of Tlatlaya and Iguala reenergized the Mexican public to demand better security policies. The military extrajudicial killings of over twenty presumed criminals in Tlatlaya and their cover-up by higher-up military officials and even prosecutors in Mexico City drove home how pervasive corruption and impunity are in Mexico. The complicity of the prosecutors is especially disturbing – they were supposed to be the bright spot and hope of reforms of Mexico’s justice system.

The Iguala massacre of 43 teaching-college students – apparently at the orders of the local mayor and his wife and at the hands of local police forces collaborating with a feared organized crime group Guerrerros Unidos – highlighted the persistent and pervasive corruption of local government officials and municipal police. The original reaction from Los Piños appeared to be disinterested, belying Peña Nieto’s vows to bring empathy to the war against the cartels, a strong focus on the disappeared and help to victims.

The Mexico-wide anti-government demonstrations following the massacre have produced some new government action in the security sphere. Peña Nieto has committed himself to reforming the municipal police by rolling them into state police forces under a so-called unified command approach – though many Mexican states are already balking at the idea and trying to find ways to pass the buck back to Los Piños. The Mexican president has also sought greater powers to dismiss local government officials suspected of cooperating with or being under the thumb of local criminal groups. But as many a leader has painfully learned, firing officials and even arresting them is far easier than putting in place structures that eliminate impunity and allow institutions to become clean.

Steps to Improve Mexico’s Security Policies

While many Mexican protesters oppose the use of the military to fight the cartels, there is no easy way to stop using the military altogether – though being diligent in strongly prosecuting abuses, such as at Tlatlaya, is crucial and urgent. However, there are many other important steps that need to be taken now to improve the delivery of public safety and to strengthen rule of law and the state vis-à-vis the cartels. Over time, they should also obviate the need to use the military. The United States can in important ways assist in many of them. Elaborated in detail in “Changing the Game or Dropping the Ball?”  these are in brief:

• Making Interdiction More Strategic

Interdiction must move beyond the current nonstrategic, non-prioritized,opportunistic targeting posture. The most dangerous groups should be targeted first, with an eye toward local stability. Targeting plans should be based on robust assessments of what kind of violence hits will trigger and strategies to mitigate and prevent such outcomes, such as through force prepositioning.

• Switching from High-Value Targeting to Middle-Layer Targeting

Interdiction should shift away from predominantly high-value targeting to middle-layer targeting. This may seem a marginal technical change; in fact, it has profound positive implications regarding the ability of criminal groups to react to interdiction hits vis-à-vis law enforcement agencies and toward each other, overall limiting their capacity for violent reaction.

• Keeping a Law Enforcement Focus on Areas Where Violence Has Declined

The Peña Nieto administration must not avert its eyes from areas where violence has declined; instead it should work with local authorities to deepen police reform and institutionalize rule of law in those areas. It also must analyze why violence has not exploded in other parts of the country and reinforce the stabilization dynamics there by strengthening law enforcement and the rule of law.

• Resurrecting A Momentum on Police Reform

In order to strengthen the deterrence and response capacity of its law enforcement, the Peña Nieto administration also needs to double up on police reform, by enhancing capacity, beefing up vetting and reducing corruption, adopting proactive and knowledge-based policing methods, achieving a sufficient density of permanent-beat deployments, and developing local knowledge.

• Doubling Up on Justice and Human Rights

With only one year left until 2016 when the new accusatorial justice system is supposed to be fully functional throughout Mexico, the Peña Nieto administration must make a serious push to assist states in switching to the new system. This must include increased efforts to protect human rights and civil liberties and reduce corruption.

• Making the Polígonos Anti-Crime Socio-Economic Interventions More Rounded and 

The logic and mechanisms of specific polígonos projects should be articulated and clarified and subjected to careful evaluation and monitoring. The projects need to be better connected and integrated with one another in a particular area, not discrete isolated programs. Assessments of cross-boundary dynamics and interactive processes across polygons and between polygon and non-polygon areas should be built into the projects’ designs. It is also crucial to integrate the projects’ designs with local law enforcement efforts.