Mexico election unlikely to reshape drug war

Hundreds of people demonstrate in May against drug violence -- specifically, forced disappearances -- in Mexico City. The violence is a major campaign issue in the upcoming presidential election.
(Omar Torres, AFP/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY — Six years into a ghastly drug war, none of the top candidates in next Sunday’s presidential election has offered a significant new strategy to win a conflict that has claimed more than 50,000 lives and terrorized Mexican society.

Instead, the politicians emphasize reducing the increasingly brutal violence, as they seek to address the concern that weighs heavily on the minds of outraged Mexican voters.

The goal of dismantling the cartels was the hallmark of outgoing President Felipe Calderon’s administration, and the candidates’ cautious approach to the drug war suggests a tacit acknowledgment that, at this point at least, it remains an unrealistic one.

A close examination of the candidates’ proposals offers little sign that the drug-war dynamic will change significantly in the short term.

“There is nothing that they are talking about that would dramatically change the current situation,” said Ana Maria Salazar, a security analyst in Mexico and former official in the Pentagon. “There are some small differences, but the reality is everything they are putting on the table is mid- or long-term.”

Like Calderon, the candidates advocate sending the army that has waged the war back to its barracks, but only after regions of the country have been pacified and a competent policing force has been put in place — neither likely to happen soon.

Like Calderon, the candidates stress the need to focus on money-laundering by drug traffickers; to bolster the judiciary; and to create more jobs, social programs and drug-use prevention schemes to discourage youths from joining cartels. Although these all formed part of Calderon’s strategy, he made little progress, and any effort to accomplish them by the next president would require considerable time to produce results.

The candidate whom polls show most likely to win the election, Enrique Peña Nieto, comes under special scrutiny in his security platform because of his party’s past ties with the cartels. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which was ousted from the presidency in 2000 after seven decades of uninterrupted rule, is known to have made deals with major drug traffickers in the past in exchange for peace and payoffs.

Peña Nieto has repeatedly had to reassure Mexican and international audiences that his government would not revive those tactics — even as several former governors and other officials from his party are under investigation for allegedly working with drug cartels. Several states that have always been run by the PRI, such as Tamaulipas and Veracruz, are also fiefdoms of unabashed cartel control.

“We will not have a truce with those who attack the life, liberty and property of our citizens,” said Peña Nieto, former governor of the state of Mexico, the country’s most populous. “The new focus will be to protect the citizens.”

In interviews, stump speeches and news conferences, Peña Nieto said he would concentrate on reducing homicides, kidnappings and extortion but also would continue to attack the cartels’ top and mid-level command structures.

“We should combat violence by centering our attention on fighting homicides, kidnapping and extortion, which seem to me the crimes that generate the greatest insecurity among the population,” Peña Nieto said. But, he added, “the army, the armed forces, will remain on the street as long as there aren’t optimal conditions for them to return gradually to the barracks.”

Peña Nieto, 45, also proposes creating a gendarmerie of 40,000 soldiers under civilian command that would gradually replace the army in patrolling violent parts of Mexico and supplement a federal police force that he would also expand. Except for its use of soldiers, the proposed unit sounds very similar, in terms of training and duties, to the national police agency that Calderon has been trying to mold.

Part of the reticence to take a dramatically different tack is the sheer complexity of a vicious tangle of traffickers who have proliferated in number and grown in brutality, with an ever-deepening ability to corrupt authorities.

Differences among the candidates’ proposals are of emphasis rather than substance.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, representing a coalition of leftist parties, stresses social root causes of the drug business. He says military force should not be the “central axis” of restoring peace, but he has no plans to quickly withdraw the estimated 45,000 army and navy troops deployed countrywide.

Lopez Obrador trails Peña Nieto by a wide margin but has been inching up in polls.

Josefina Vazquez Mota, of Calderon’s conservative National Action Party, would go bigger than her rivals by expanding the federal police force to 150,000 agents, nearly four times its current size. Although her proposals hew most closely to the current government’s, Vazquez Mota also speaks emphatically of reducing violence and “making Mexican families safe.”

The first female candidate from a major party, Vazquez Mota is vying with Lopez Obrador for second place in polls.

Peña Nieto bristles when asked whether a new PRI government would pactar, or make deals, with drug traffickers. His advisors, however, have acknowledged the wariness in Mexico and, especially, in Washington.

With that in mind, Peña Nieto announced this month he was recruiting the former commander of the Colombian national police as his special advisor for attacking organized crime. Gen. Oscar Naranjo, a favorite of the Washington drug-fighting establishment, is credited with bringing down top cartel figures in Colombia, whereU.S. military advisors had a more prominent role than they do in Mexico.

Naranjo’s appointment, which would take effect only if Peña Nieto won, was meant to signal continuity in Mexico’s close working relationship with U.S. officials in the war on drugs and related measures such as rebuilding the police and court system. Naranjo is reported to be very close to Calderon’s security czar, Genaro Garcia Luna, and is said to follow a similar playbook.

To counter suspicions that Peña Nieto might favor a less violent cartel over more vicious ones as a way to quell the bloodletting, Naranjo said there was no such thing as good criminals and bad criminals.

“A criminal is a criminal,” he said, sitting next to a serious-looking Peña Nieto.

While praising Calderon’s strategy, Naranjo added: “There will always be ways to perfect, deepen, correct and improve strategies and policies.”

Peña Nieto said he wanted to follow the “Colombia model” of fighting cartels. U.S.-financed efforts there did succeed in lowering violence, but at a high cost, with the emergence of abusive right-wing paramilitary squads. Drug gangs still operate in Colombia and control pieces of territory, but the bombing of cars and downing of airliners — a level of violence still not seen in Mexico — have ceased.

Since the early days of the Calderon administration, the United States has allotted more than $1 billion to Mexico under the so-called Merida plan aimed at arming Mexican security forces in the drug war, giving them helicopters and supporting the police and court reforms. Peña Nieto has said he wants to continue and expand Merida.

Beyond Merida, Washington has worked hand-in-glove with the Calderon administration in the drug war, providing intelligence and training as well as expanding its presence in Mexico, greatly multiplying the number of personnel from all agencies, from the CIA and Drug Enforcement Administration to the Treasury Department. Some of those officials are concerned about having to strike up new relationships with the personnel that a President Peña Nieto would appoint.

Some experts think that even if a new PRI government wanted to make deals with drug traffickers, it would be much more difficult today to do so. The drug war has devolved into a no-holds-barred fight between two large cartels, the Sinaloa network of fugitive billionaire kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and the Zetas paramilitary force. But there are also numerous small, but often extremely violent, groups provoking mayhem in parts of Mexico and unlikely to be deterred by any deal.

“With the proliferation of gangs, the corrupt arrangements become more complicated,” observed Alejandro Hope, a former senior intelligence official. “The bribing of one gang will be considered aggression by many of the rivals. ... To return to that system would be notoriously undesirable, even if it were possible.”