This Thursday, May 2, President Obama will travel to Mexico City to meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The visit has been framed as a shift away from the security agenda that dominated the U.S.-Mexico relationship during former Mexican president Felipe Calderon’s government in order to focus primarily on economic opportunities and growth.
It is important to recognize the vast array of issues that encompass the U.S.-Mexico relationship. However, the narrative that Mexico has undergone a significant transformation since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office five months ago doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality on the ground.
WOLA’s Mexico expert Maureen Meyer answers key questions about what is changing and what has remained the same in Mexico.
Is the security situation getting better?
In early April, Mexico’s Minister of the Interior, Miguel Osorio Chong, announced that homicides allegedly linked to organized crime had dropped 17 percent between December 2012 and March 2013. The Mexican government’s claim of lower violent deaths in Mexico should be taken with a grain of salt. A comparison of the homicide statistics from the last quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of 2013 by Mexico’s Institute for Competitiveness (Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad, IMCO) shows that homicides dropped by a mere 0.6 percent during that time period. Likewise, while some states—like Chihuahua—have seen a significant drop in homicides, violence has increased in other parts of the country, such as the central state of San Luis Potosi, which saw a 70 percent increase in homicides as compared to the first quarter of 2012. The state of Guerrero continues to have the highest homicide rate in Mexico, with 491 homicides in the first three months of the year, followed by President Peña’s home state, the state of Mexico, with 385.
Antonio Luigi Mazzitelli, the head of the Mexico office of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, recently stated that organized crime had gone well beyond drug trafficking to a mafia exploitation of territory. In the same interview, Mazzitelli admitted that due to safety issues, his staff does not travel to the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas.
What’s going on with U.S. security cooperation?
The Mexican government has stated its intention to shift the focus of U.S. security cooperation through the Merida Initiative by putting more emphasis on violence prevention and continued support for Mexico’s justice reforms.
Placing less emphasis on traditional security assistance and more on “soft” security assistance (such as funding for prevention and judicial reform efforts) would be a valuable contribution to Mexico’s efforts to address violence. But the big unknown going into the Obama-Peña meeting is what type of security assistance Mexico wants from the United States at all and what any shift in strategy will mean for all of the Merida funding already in the pipeline.
Will the Peña government continue with the programs implemented during the Calderón government or start with something new?
The Mexican government has also made it clear that all U.S. assistance and contact with the Mexican government on law enforcement will be channeled through the Ministry of the Interior (SEGOB) rather than multiple agencies. This “single window” model reflects the concentration of power within SEGOB that we have seen since the beginning of the Peña government, including the elimination of the Ministry of Public Security and the placement of all public security and federal police responsibilities within this ministry.
Is Mexico’s economy a success story?
Many analysts are praising Mexico’s steady economic growth and affirm that the country will become a dominant economic power in the twenty first century. It is true that economic achievements have been made and that some parts of Mexico appear to be flourishing. However, many of the signs of Mexico’s economic recovery are largely due to the return of maquiladora factories from China. Because of Mexico’s wage stagnation, hourly wages in the country (currently 60 cents) are almost 20 percent lower than China’s. Wage stagnation may be good for investors, but it has been devastating for workers. Mexico’s National Council to Evaluate Social Policy (CONEVAL) reports that the price of the basic food basket increased by 65 percent from 2006-2012. CONVEAL’s numbers also show that over 12 million people went into poverty in Mexico between 2006 and 2010; currently, over 51 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
The bottom line: same situation, new narrative
In reality, conditions in Mexico have changed very little since Enrique Peña Nieto assumed the Mexican presidency, but the shift in the official discourse away from security toward the economy, job creation, and a broad agenda of reforms has been dramatic. It is a shift that is now also being reflected in the framing of President Obama’s visit to Mexico. But innocent Mexicans continue to be victims of organized crime-related violence, people are still being disappeared, journalists continue to be killed and threatened, human rights violations by Mexican security forces persist, and corruption and infiltration of state officials is still widespread. While there are many issues that bring our two countries together, reducing violence, corruption, and human rights violations should continue to form an essential part of the bilateral agenda.
Further resources on President Obama’s visit include:
- As President Obama Heads to Mexico, Members of Congress Express Concern over Human Rights: Bipartisan letter from April 2013 calls for renewed attention to abuses
- U.S. and International Organizations Request That President Obama Meet with Mexican Civil Society
- Four Facts about Gun Legislation and Cartel Violence in Mexico
- Mexico’s New Military Police Force: The Continued Militarization of Public Security in Mexico