In his electoral campaign and after being elected to office on July 2, 2012, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto promised a new direction for Mexico. Seven months into his presidency, how much has Mexico changed its course?
In this Q & A, WOLA’s Senior Associate for Mexico and Central America Maureen Meyer addresses key questions about security, drug-related violence, human rights, and security cooperation with the United States.
What is Peña Nieto’s security strategy?
Since taking office in December 2012, Peña Nieto has emphasized that his priorities are to reduce crime and violence in Mexico, focusing particularly on murder, kidnappings, and extortion. Coupled with this, Peña Nieto promised to focus attention on the root causes of violence. This was clearly laid out in the February launch of the National Program for the Social Prevention of Violence and Crime (Programa Nacional para la Prevención Social de la Violencia y la Delincuencia). This program, led by the Undersecretariat for Prevention and Citizen Participation in the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación, SEGOB), encompasses actions from nine of Mexico’s federal ministries. At the onset, this program will work in 57 areas (48 municipalities, two boroughs of the Federal District, and seven metropolitan areas of Mexico City) that require urgent attention because of their high levels of violence. Prevention-related activities—including programs to keep kids in school and combat drug addiction—will also be carried out in another 251 municipalities. While more discussion of violence prevention is a welcome shift from the previous administration’s very public focus on drug interdiction and the killing or capture of high-level drug traffickers, there are indications that some of the programs represent a mere re-packaging of existing social programs within Mexico’s various ministries, rather than funding for new initiatives that are specifically directed at violence prevention.
One of Peña Nieto’s most dramatic changes to Mexico’s security institutions has been the elimination of the Public Security Ministry (Secretaría de Seguridad Pública, SSP) from the cabinet and the subsequent delegation of all public security responsibilities to SEGOB. With this change, the Federal Police (Policía Federal), which more than tripled in size during the Calderón administration, is now under the direction of the newly-created National Commission for Security (Comisión Nacional de Seguridad). Fulfilling his campaign promise, Peña Nieto also announced the creation of a National Gendarmerie, a military-trained police force which by all accounts is still a work in progress. Reports about the gendarmerie’s initial size vary, but it is clear that it will be staffed at least initially by members of Mexico’s Army and Navy (albeit under civilian direction) and that it will function as a response force to recover public spaces from criminal control. If all goes as planned, Peña Nieto will have, at minimum, a 100,000-strong federal security force by the end of his six-year term, with 50,000 Federal Police and 50,000 members of the gendarmerie. As WOLA and others have indicated, there are many concerns about the creation of the gendarmerie, particularly given the military nature of the force and the lack of consultation with the Mexican Congress and civil society about its creation. It is also not clear how these forces will be staffed up or how the government plans to ensure an adequate recruitment process, training, and strong internal and external controls in such a short period of time.
In what ways is Peña Nieto’s security strategy different from that of former President Calderón?
While the changes mentioned above are indeed significant, so far Peña Nieto’s strategy to address organized crime related-violence differs very little from his predecessor’s. The military still is taking the lead in operations to combat organized crime, and there has been no indication as to when these responsibilities will be fully transferred to civilian-led security forces. And while it is true that the Mexican government has shifted its media strategy on violence—suspects are no longer paraded before the media and the press is not filled with daily reports on the seizure of drugs and weapons—counter-drug activities have continued unabated. Mexico’s Ministry of Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) reported that between December 1, 2012 and April 30, 2013, it had detained on average 21 suspects a day and daily seized on average a little over eight kilos of cocaine and 1,888 kilos of marijuana. Faced with security crises in parts of the states of Guerrero and Michoacán in recent months, the government’s response was to follow in the footsteps of former president Calderón and send in the military and the federal police. To differentiate itself from the previous government, Peña Nieto’s administration announced that the operation in Michoacán would also emphasize the economic development of the affected regions, but only time will tell if this is truly a different and “more comprehensive” strategy or just more of the same.
Have levels of violence gone up, gone down, or stayed the same since Peña Nieto’s election?
The public discussion about violence in Mexico has shifted dramatically in the past year. Media coverage about Mexico in the United States has focused on the economy, and it has been decidedly more positive. In Mexico, coverage of violence and organized crime has fallen sharply, and the terms “organized crime” and “drug trafficking” appear with much less frequency in major news outlets. The Peña Nieto government has encouraged this trend, focusing its national and international messaging on economic growth, energy reform, and trade rather than violence, drug trafficking, or organized crime. The lack of information about the government’s actions to combat organized crime has made it difficult for media outlets to continue to report on the violence, as they do not have official information to back up their stories, and brazen attacks against media outlets and journalists who do report on crime and violence has effectively silenced reporting in some areas. As a result, citizens often rely more on social media for information on violent situations in their communities.
Although media coverage is down, violence in Mexico remains at unacceptably high levels. After reaching a peak of about 68 murders per day in 2011, the murder rate fell throughout 2012 to approximately 50 murders per day in early 2013. Violence continued at this level throughout the first quarter of the Peña Nieto administration.
At the same time, the measurement of murders related to drug trafficking and organized crime continues to be controversial and problematic. The Mexican government claims that there was a 17 percent reduction in organized crime-related murders (homicidios dolosos) in the first quarter of 2013 versus the previous quarter and a 14 percent reduction versus the first quarter of 2012. This would be a very significant reduction. However, the overall murder rate decreased at a much slower rate: 8.5 percent versus the previous quarter and 7.8 percent versus the same quarter in 2012. It seems likely, therefore, that the government may be applying different criteria to determine which homicides are classified as “organized crime-related.”
Although Peña Nieto announced that he would prioritize the crimes that most affected ordinary citizens, there has not been a significant reduction in other types of violent crime during his administration. Although violent robberies have fallen in the past few years, the rate of kidnappings and extortions rose in the first quarter of 2013; both are at near-record levels.
What do we know about the state of U.S.-Mexico cooperation in the Peña Nieto administration?
President Obama’s April visit to Mexico was framed as an opportunity to shift the conversation away from the security agenda that had dominated the U.S.-Mexico relationship during Calderón’s government; the meeting was to focus primarily on economic opportunities and growth. Yet, while it was not the top issue discussed, security was still a part of the agenda. During his visit, President Obama recognized the serious security challenges facing Mexico and the evolving nature of the cooperation between the two countries. He affirmed that it is “up to the Mexican people to determine their security structures” and that the United States looks “forward to continuing our good cooperation in any way that the Mexican government deems appropriate.”
In spite of the announced shift in focus, officials from both governments have referenced the existing four-pillar framework as being the guidelines for future security cooperation. This suggests that there will be adjustments, particularly given the Peña Nieto government’s interest in more focus on crime prevention and the rule of law, but that the basis of the cooperation will likely remain the same. While the Mexican government has been slow in specifying what exactly it wants from the United States, it has been clear that all cooperation will now be carried out through SEGOB—an approach referred to by the Mexican government as the “single window”—in order to better control intelligence sharing and to give more direction to U.S.-Mexico cooperation. In part due to delays (because all requests for cooperation must now be through SEGOB) and in part due to the Mexican government’s lack of specificity regarding what it wants from the United States, there are currently over US$600 million in Merida Initiative funds that still need to be delivered.
As cooperation moves forward, support for police reform efforts in Mexico, particularly focused on increased accountability measures, as well as continued support for justice reform, will be important. As several members of the U.S. Congress recently expressed in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, the defense of human rights should also be a central part of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral agenda, particularly given the grave human rights situation in Mexico and the human rights conditions placed on U.S. security assistance to the country.
What has the Peña Nieto administration done to address human rights violations in Mexico?
While Peña Nieto has stated his commitment to ensuring that “rights established on paper become reality,” the human rights situation in Mexico remains dire. Complaints of human rights violations by the Mexican military continue at alarming levels. In the first five months of 2013, the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) received 585 complaints about abuses by the military. This included 15 unlawful killings and 15 forced disappearances. For the most part, past cases of abuse also remain in impunity. Not a single one of the 7,441 complaints of human rights violations filed against the military between 2006 and 2012 has led to a conviction in civilian court. As of January 2013, the Mexican military reports that since 2006, only 38 soldiers have been sentenced by military courts for human right abuses. The Mexican Congress has yet to reinitiate discussions to reform Mexico’s Military Code of Justice so that human rights violations committed by soldiers are investigated and prosecuted in civilian courts.
Brazen attacks on migrants and against migrant shelters continue unabated, despite continued national and international pressure. In May 2013, a band of armed individuals boarded a train carrying as many as 500 migrants and demanded payment; more than 16 migrants were injured as a result. Several staff members at a shelter in Tenosique, Tabasco state were forced in early June 2013 to abandon the shelter after frequent death threats, presumably from organized crime. These threats occurred after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had ordered precautionary protection measures for the migrant shelter, which, according to Mexican human rights organizations, were not fully implemented. Meanwhile, public officials continue to abuse migrants. More than 30 migrants were arrested at a shelter in Mexico state in June 2013 when members of the Federal Police and agents of the National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) illegally entered a migrant shelter to arrest migrants.
In the context of drug-related violence and the military’s involvement in public security, Mexico has seen an alarming number of disappearances. A government database recently made public in February 2013 revealed the names of more than 26,000 people who disappeared between 2006 and 2012. The administration has claimed that this number is far too high, and the head of SEGOB, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, told reporters recently that state and federal officials were purging the list of false positives. After multiple protests from family members of the disappeared, the Mexican Attorney General’s office announced in May 2013 the creation of a specialized unit to investigate disappearances, which will be staffed by 12 agents. The decree to create this office was only recently published, and so far the unit has no office or budget. Meanwhile, disappearances, including forced disappearances, continue; the CNDH received twenty complaints of forced disappearances in the first five months of 2013.
In January 2013, President Peña Nieto signed a law that recognized the right of victims of crimes and human rights violations to receive assistance, reparations, and access to justice. It would also create several government institutions designed to deliver assistance and information to victims. The law had been previously vetoed by President Calderón, and President Peña Nieto’s reversal of this decision was a welcome change. Needed modifications to the law were passed by Mexico’s congress in April and the law officially went into effect on May 4, 2013.
Meanwhile, human rights defenders and journalists in Mexico continue to face threats, harassment, and, far too often, violence. One year after the Law to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists went into force, implementation of the protection mechanism established in the law has fallen short. The National Center for Social Communication (Centro Nacional de Comunicación Social, Cencos) reports that in the first 100 days of the Peña Nieto government there were 56 attacks against journalists, including one murder, and 37 attacks against human rights defenders.
WOLA Program Officer Clay Boggs contributed to the drafting of this piece.