One of the key failures of President Calderon’s efforts against organized crime was the lack of an effective communications strategy. Calderon embarked on a highly complex “war” against organized crime but consistently failed to inform Mexican citizens of the justifications for fighting.
When a country goes to war, the government needs to continuously keep the public aware of the objectives and the sacrifices that citizens will have to make to achieve those objectives. Equally important, the government needs to inform citizens about the progress achieved in the war.
For analysts following public security issues in Mexico, the reasons for Calderon’s efforts were always clear: (1) to reduce the power and influence of the country’s largest criminal organizations and (2) create a truly functional country of laws and effective enforcement. By 2002, the power and economic influence held by the country’s largest criminal organizations posed a national security threat that could not longer wait to be dealt with.
However, leading up to Calderon’s decision to tackle the country’s most powerful drug-trafficking organizations, a large part of the Mexican public was unaware of the pervasiveness and growing influence of these groups, and thus did not truly understand the urgency to launch a “war”. Without this understanding, the escalating levels of violence and murder during Calderon’s presidency generated heightened levels of dissatisfaction with the federal government, and were undoubtedly a key factor behind the ouster of the PAN in the 2012 presidential election.
Peña Nieto’s Security Strategy
Seizing this public dissatisfaction with the effects of Calderon’s war, Enrique Peña Nieto promised to make “changes” to the federal government’s public security strategy. He promised to change the government’s priorities to drastically reducing the levels of criminal activity that were hurting people the most (i.e. extortion, gun violence, kidnapping, etc.) and de-emphasize fighting drug-trafficking.
Peña Nieto also announced a series of institutional changes to better fight crime. He dismantled the Ministry of Public Security and brought the federal police under the control of the Interior Ministry. These also included the creation of a highly efficient militarized police force known as the National Gendarmerie.
Despite these promises and ongoing institutional changes, nine months after the election Mexicans still do not know where the government stands in terms of the war against organized crime: Has the Peña Nieto abandoned the offensive against organized crime launched by his predecessor or will it continue? What is Peña Nieto’s stance against criminal organizations such as Los Zetas? Is he determined to dismantle these organizations like Calderon was, or does he want to avoid confrontation in order to prevent a further escalation of violence?
These are important questions to which Peña Nieto has not provided clear answers. Similarly, issues like revamping financial intelligence to better detect money laundering—a key step to weaken the country’s largest criminal groups, seem to have flown under the government’s radar.
Diversion as a Strategy
While giving scant information about his security strategy, Peña Nieto has promoted a different agenda, focused on development issues, combating corruption and addressing structural reforms. This change in focus was admittedly much needed. The country was trapped in a vicious cycle in which a constant stream of negative stories about Mexico’s spiraling lawlessness dominated the media and clouded discussion of other important issues.
The press has played a key role in diverting the national conversation away from security and violence. It is not clear whether the press has independently opted for this change or whether the Peña Nieto administration has worked to persuade the press to change its overall focus.
The Perils of Diversion
Despite the need to address other issues, avoiding drug trafficking organizations is a highly risky strategy for the president. The latest statistics regarding organized crime related executions show that violence has not subsided and that it has in fact become more geographically diffuse. Similarly, there is no indication that extortion and kidnapping, or other types of crimes are declining.
This persistent reality has not gone unnoticed by the general population. According to a recent national poll, 40% of Mexicans believe that crime has increased since Peña Nieto took office while only 20% believe it has decreased. The rest believe it has roughly remained the same.
So far, Peña Nieto has not had to face a massive tragic incident related to organized crime such as the Casino Royale massacre in 2011 that marked a turning point in the war for Calderon. However, in light of the trends described above, it is only a matter of time before a high-profile event or assassination turns the spotlight back to Mexico’s security problem.
Inheriting A Different Yet Acute Reality
When Calderon became President of Mexico in 2006, he faced seven large “drug cartels”, as well as numerous other medium sized, yet powerful drug-trafficking organizations. During Calderon’s presidency, some of these organizations, notably Beltran Leyva, the Gulf Cartel and La Familia, were severely weakened.
Although important inroads were made, progress against these organizations also prompted them to diversify their criminal portfolio and adopt new tactics in order to avoid risk and increase revenues. Since 2009, the country has witnessed notable spikes in kidnapping and extortion as well as car and merchandise theft.
This wave of criminal diversification has been accompanied by a growing geographic dispersion of organized criminal activity. Organized crime now reaches smaller cities and communities that had previously not experienced this phenomenon. This panorama is further complicated by the emergence of hundreds of new, smaller players trying to imitate the tactics and the methods of the larger groups.
Simultaneously, the country’s largest players, namely the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, have demonstrated great resilience against the government’s efforts. (During the last two years of the Calderon administration, Los Zetas suffered major blows and yet the organization still maintains a strong regional presence.)
The Politically Versus Ethically Correct Decision
The Peña Nieto administration is very late in defining a clear course of action against organized crime. If the administration does have a strategy but is not communicating it, the poor level of communication could turn into a public relations disaster if not addressed promptly.
There is nothing wrong with de-emphasizing the war against organized crime—but this cannot come at the expense of growing misinformation and confusion among the public. The president needs to be crystal clear about his security strategy and should not avoid taking a bold stance against the largest criminal groups.
At the same time, the Mexican state cannot simply abandon pursuing drug trafficking organizations to focus on reducing crimes levels. As explained above, the fast expansion of extortion and kidnapping go hand in hand with the phenomenon of drug trafficking. Easing the throttle now means that medium and large criminal organizations will recover their strength and the territorial influence they gained during the early 2000s.
Luckily, it is still early in the presidency to fix the situation. Not only is taking a tough stance against organized crime the ethical thing to do, but it will also help Peña Nieto and his party, who are often seen as enablers of the sort of corruption that allowed criminal organizations to thrive in Mexico.