Alejandro Hope directs the Less Crime, Less Punishment project at the Instituto Mexicano para la Competividad, an Open Society Foundations grantee.
Upon winning Mexico’s elections July 1, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) promised that the main objective of his presidency will be to reduce violence “quickly.” It is a commendable goal, but Peña Nieto has said little about how he will achieve it. The ideas he has presented so far—forming a national gendarmerie, increasing the size of the federal police force, building the capacity of intelligence agencies, bolstering the attorney general’s office—will take years and even decades.
Mexican voters are unlikely to have the patience to wait for these projects to come to fruition.
Beyond trying to bring relief to a public that is weary of witnessing unimaginable acts of violence on a daily basis, Peña Nieto also has his political future to consider.
After a few massacres, what was former president Calderon’s war will gradually become Peña Nieto’s. After the post-election honeymoon ends, the number of dead, kidnapped, and extorted will begin to add up on his watch. And there will be one additional difficulty: the outgoing administration can, with some degree of credibility, argue that the responsibility for the violence partially lies with the state governments, many of which are controlled by the PRI. The new government will not have this luxury. The PRI now holds 23 governorships (out of 31) as well as the presidency. Almost everything that is done or not done will rest squarely with the PRI and Peña Nieto.
To maintain the support of the electorate that voted for him in droves, the new president needs a short-term violence reduction plan. I do not know what Peña and his team may have in mind, but here are a few ideas:
- Establish a massacre-prevention policy, based on the principles of targeted deterrence: a) The state should develop a priority response plan addressing stratified categories of violent crime; b) the state communicates the plan to criminal groups; and c) the state combats the first criminal group that commits a crime within the highest priority level to the fullest extent of the law.
- Create secure areas within the most violent municipalities. By using the Ciudad Juarez “Zona PRONAF” model, certain areas could become zones free of homicide, kidnapping, and extortion in various parts of the country. The zones would feature security screening parameters, a special working group within the intelligence force, security cameras, and mechanisms for local people and businesses to denounce crimes.
- Design a national anti-extortion strategy with special units to address extortion involving the federal police force and the attorney general’s office (and if possible, state governments as well).
- Encourage citizens to report all kidnappings to the federal police. Despite its deficiencies, the federal police have much greater capacity and experience in responding to kidnappings than state governments, especially when it comes to investigations and negotiations.
- Increase the frequency of street patrols on main streets. Forces from various parts of the federal police could be temporarily reassigned to the regional security division (the branch of the Federal Police in charge of, among other things, road safety) and conduct operations similar to CONAGO II.
- Change the policies around drug interception on Mexico’s southern border. The current policy requires private flights coming from Central and South America to land in Tapachula or Cozumel. This causes negative effects in neighboring Central American countries and elongates the drug trafficking routes taken by land through Mexico, with little effect on the actual volume of cocaine crossing the border. Alternatively, the landing requirement could be lifted and these resources could be used to increase oversight of trafficking on land, particularly along the Tehuantepec isthmus. At the very least, this would shorten the drug routes taken through Mexico.
- Eliminate visa requirements for citizens of some or all Central American countries, with the condition that they must enter the country by plane. This could reduce the flow of people traveling on dangerous routes and using risky means of transportation (for instance, cargo trains), and could potentially reduce the kidnapping and extortion rates of migrants.
- Study the current truce between gangs in El Salvador and the demilitarization of paramilitary troops in Colombia. While these methods may not directly apply to Mexico, both cases offer important lessons about the benefits and challenges of disarming violent groups and bringing criminal organizations to justice.
These recommendations have one thing in common: they can all generate short-term change. President-elect Peña Nieto has proposed essential institutional changes, but he must also offer policies that will demonstrate results within one or two years, not three or six. If the new government does not make immediate progress on security, the many supporters who gave Peña Nieto and the PRI election victory could turn their backs on them the next time they are called to the ballot box.