"Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal Cartels and Rule of Law in Mexico", crisisgroup

Latin America Report N°48 19 Mar 2013

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After years of intense, cartel-related bloodshed that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and shaken Mexico, new President Enrique Peña Nieto is promising to reduce the murder rate. The security plan he introduced with the backing of the three biggest parties gives Mexico a window of opportunity to build institutions that can produce long-term peace and cut impunity rates. But he faces many challenges. The cartels have thousands of gunmen and have morphed into diversified crime groups that not only traffic drugs, but also conduct mass kidnappings, oversee extortion rackets and steal from the state oil industry. The military still fights them in much of the country on controversial missions too often ending in shooting rather than prosecutions. If Peña Nieto does not build an effective police and justice system, the violence may continue or worsen. But major institutional improvements and more efficient, comprehensive social programs could mean real hope for sustainable peace and justice.

The development of cartels into murder squads fighting to control territory with military-grade weapons challenges the Mexican state’s monopoly on the use of force in some regions. The brutality of their crimes undermines civilian trust in the government’s capacity to protect them, and the corruption of drug money damages belief in key institutions. Cartels challenge the fundamental nature of the state, therefore, not by threatening to capture it, but by damaging and weakening it. The military fight-back has at times only further eroded the trust in government by inflicting serious human rights abuses. Some frustrated communities have formed armed “self-defence” groups against the cartels. Whatever the intent, these also degrade the rule of law.

There has been fierce discussion about how to legally define the fighting. The violence has been described as a low-intensity armed conflict, a kind of war, because of the number of deaths and type of weapons used. The criminal groups have been described as everything from gangs, drug cartels and transnational criminal organisations, to paramilitaries and terrorists. The Mexican government, much of the international community and many analysts reject the idea there is anything other than a serious criminal threat, even though those criminal groups use military and, at times, vicious terror tactics. The army and marines, too, thrown into the breach with limited police training and without efficient policing methods, have often used intense and lethal force to fight the groups, killing more than 2,300 alleged criminals in a five-year period.

Within the grey world of fighting between rival cartels and security forces, there is much confusion as to who the victims of the violence are, and who killed them or made them disappear. Estimates of the total who have died in connection with the fighting over the last six years range from 47,000 to more than 70,000, in addition to thousands of disappearances. Cartel gunmen often dress in military uniforms and include corrupt police in their ranks, so people are unsure if they are facing criminals or troops. A victims movement is demanding justice and security. Mexico has also lost hundreds of police and army officers, mayors, political candidates, judges, journalists and human rights defenders to the bloodshed that is taking a toll on its democratic institutions.

The cartel violence began to escalate in 2004, when Vicente Fox was president and immediately after the domestic U.S. legislative ban on assault weapons expired. President Felipe Calderón launched an offensive against the criminal groups in 2006. It was backed by the U.S. under the Mérida Initiative and included deployment of 96,000 army troops, together with thousands of marines and the appointment of dozens of military officers as police chiefs in towns and cities. Calderón oversaw record seizures of cocaine, crystal meth and drug money, while security forces captured or killed 25 of the 37 most wanted cartel bosses. However, violence between rival criminal groups and the security forces shot up rapidly, while the army, previously one of Mexico’s most respected institutions, came under scrutiny for widespread human rights abuses. The crackdown was also hindered by corruption, with police and military, as well as prosecutors, investigators and politicians being arrested for working with cartels, sometimes as killers.

Peña Nieto, who took office on 1 December 2012, has won broad consensus from the major political parties in support of a security plan. It promises to implement police and justice reforms, including overhauling a deficient judicial system and confronting the challenge of Mexico having more than 2,000 police forces that operate independently at the federal, state and municipal levels. For these reforms to succeed, the government must train police to both respect human rights and build strong cases that stand up under the new trial system. A practice promoted under Calderón of vetting police needs to be expanded and procedures established to gradually remove those who fail. Resources, including from the U.S., have shifted significantly to such institution building and away from the early emphasis on giving the military helicopters and other hardware. Now it is essential to review how to maximise and sustain the impact. Effective police and courts are crucial to reducing impunity in the long term.

The Peña Nieto administration also needs to follow through on its announced national crime prevention plan, aimed especially at helping young people in the most violent areas. The cartels have been able to recruit tens of thousands of killers in part because poor neighbourhoods have been systematically abandoned over decades and lack sufficient schools, community centres and security – in short they lack opportunity. There are many dedicated Mexican social workers with the experience and ability to reach the vulnerable groups if they are given resources.

While funding to help these programs is money well spent, Washington also needs to better control trafficking in guns, especially assault rifles, from U.S. suppliers, who are a principal source of arms for the cartels. International leaders need to engage in a serious debate on counter-narcotics policies, including strategies to curtail both production and consumption. While Mexico’s cartels have become diversified crime groups, they still make billions of dollars every year trafficking drugs to the U.S., money that pays for guns, killers and corruption. At the global level, it is past time to re-evaluate policies that have failed to prevent illicit drugs from maintaining dangerous levels of addiction and to reduce the corruption and violence associated with drug production and trafficking.

Discussions to be opened at the Organisation of American States (OAS) and at the 2016 Special Global Drug Policy Session of the UN General Assembly provide new ground for a serious review. After suffering so much from the violence, Mexico is a natural leader for this debate.

The Mexican case is pertinent for countries across the world facing similar challenges. The development of criminal cartels capable of funding killers with military-grade weaponry is also a danger to other nations in the Western hemisphere, in West Africa and Central Asia. The international community has much to learn from the efforts of the Mexican government and society to overcome these challenges. If they succeed in reducing violence, theirs can become a security model to follow instead of one to fear.

Mexico City/Bogotá/Brussels, 19 March 2013