Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s approach to combating Mexican drug cartels has been a much-discussed topic since well before he was elected. Indeed, in June 2011 — more than a year before the July 2012 Mexican presidential election — I wrote an analysis discussing rumors that, if elected, Pena Nieto was going to attempt to reach some sort of accommodation with Mexico’s drug cartels in order to bring down the level of violence.
Such rumors were certainly understandable, given the arrangement that had existed for many years between some senior members of Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party and some powerful cartel figures during the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s long reign in Mexico prior to the election of Vicente Fox of the National Action Party in 2000. However, as we argued in 2011 and repeated in March 2013, much has changed in Mexico since 2000, and the new reality in Mexico means that it would be impossible for the Pena Nieto administration to reach any sort of deal with the cartels even if it made an attempt.
But the rumors of the Pena Nieto government reaching an accommodation with some cartel figures such as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera have persisted, even as the Mexican government arrests key operatives in Guzman’s network, such as Ines Coronel Barreras, Guzman’s father-in-law, who was arrested May 1 in Agua Prieta, Mexico. Indeed, on April 27, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest published a detailed article outlining how U.S. authorities were fearful that the Mexican government was restructuring its security relationship with the U.S. government so that it could more easily reach an unofficial truce with cartel leaders. Yet four days later, Coronel — a significant cartel figure — was arrested in a joint operation between the Mexicans and Americans.
Clearly, there is some confusion on the U.S. side about the approach the Pena Nieto government is taking, but conversations with both U.S. and Mexican officials reveal that these changes in Mexico’s approach do not appear to be as drastic as some have feared. There will need to be adjustments on both sides of the border while organizational changes are underway in Mexico, but this does not mean that bilateral U.S.-Mexico cooperation will decline in the long term.
Opportunities and Challenges
Despite the violence that has wracked Mexico over the past decade, the Mexican economy is booming. Arguably, the economy would be doing even better if potential investors were not concerned about cartel violence and street crime — and if such criminal activity did not have such a significant impact on businesses operating in Mexico.
Because of this, the Pena Nieto administration believes that it is critical to reduce the overall level of violence in the country. Essentially it wants to transform the cartel issue into a law enforcement problem, something handled by the Interior Ministry and the national police, rather than a national security problem handled by the Mexican military and the Center for Research and National Security (Mexico’s national-level intelligence agency). In many ways the Pena Nieto administration wants to follow the model of the government of Colombia, which has never been able to stop trafficking in its territory but was able to defeat the powerful Medellin and Cali cartels and relegate their successor organizations to a law enforcement problem.
The Mexicans also believe that if they can attenuate cartel violence, they will be able to free up law enforcement forces to tackle common crime instead of focusing nearly all their resources on containing the cartel wars.
Although the cartels have not yet been taken down to the point of being a law enforcement problem, the Pena Nieto administration wants to continue to signal this shift in approach by moving the focus of its efforts against the cartels to the Interior Ministry. Unlike former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who was seen leading the charge against the cartels during his administration, Pena Nieto wants to maintain some distance from the struggle against the cartels (at least publicly). Pena Nieto seeks to portray the cartels as a secondary issue that does not demand his personal leadership and attention. He can then publicly focus his efforts on issues he deems critically important to Mexico’s future, like education reform, banking reform, energy reform and fostering the Mexican economy. This is the most significant difference between the Calderon and Pena Nieto administrations.
Of course it is one thing to say that the cartels have become a secondary issue, and it is quite another to make it happen. The Mexican government still faces some real challenges in reducing the threat posed by the cartels. However, it is becoming clear that the Pena Nieto administration seeks to implement a holistic approach in an attempt to address the problems at the root of the violence that in some ways is quite reminiscent of counterinsurgency policy. The Mexicans view these underlying economic, cultural and sociological problems as issues that cannot be solved with force alone.
Mexican officials in the current government say that the approach the Calderon administration took to fighting the cartels was wrong in that it sought to solve the problem of cartel violence by simply killing or arresting cartel figures. They claim that Calderon’s approach did nothing to treat the underlying causes of the violence and that the cartels were able to recruit gunmen faster than the government could kill or capture them. (In some ways this is parallel to the U.S. government’s approach in Yemen, where increases in missile strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles have increased, rather than reduced, the number of jihadists there.) In Mexico, when the cartels experienced trouble in recruiting enough gunmen, they were able to readily import them from Central America.
However — and this is very significant — this holistic approach does not mean that the Pena Nieto administration wants to totally abandon kinetic operations against the cartels. An important pillar of any counterinsurgency campaign is providing security for the population. But rather than provoke random firefights with cartel gunmen by sending military patrols into cartel hot spots, the Pena Nieto team wants to be more targeted and intentional in its application of force. It seeks to take out the networks that hire and supply the gunmen, not just the gunmen themselves, and this will require all the tools in its counternarcotics portfolio — not only force, but also things like intelligence, financial action (to target cartel finances), public health, institution building and anti-corruption efforts.
The theory is that by providing security, stability and economic opportunity the government can undercut the cartels’ ability to recruit youth who currently see little other options in life but to join the cartels.
To truly succeed, especially in the most lawless areas, the Mexican government is going to have to begin to build institutions — and public trust in those institutions — from the ground up. The officials we have talked to hold Juarez up as an example they hope to follow in other locations, though they say they learned a lot of lessons in Juarez that will allow them to streamline their efforts elsewhere. Obviously, before they can begin building, they recognize that they will have to seize, consolidate and hold territory, and this is