Tuesday, June 12, 2012

It Depends on the Meaning of the Word "Major"

This is the lede to an article about the Mexican race published, I believe, yesterday:
The top three contenders for Mexico’s presidency have all promised a major shift in the country’s drug war strategy, placing a higher priority on reducing the violence in Mexico than on using arrests and seizures to block the flow of drugs to the United States. 
What follows is several hundred words that fall well short of proving the thesis of an imminent major shift. I don't know if this was written before the debate, but Josefina Vázquez Mota promised in no uncertain terms to keep the military in Veracruz and Tamaulipas (and presumably, wherever else needed) on Sunday. Enrique Peña Nieto has repeatedly affirmed his support for the war on drugs, and has never outlined any imminent plan to end domestic military operations. AMLO has suggested he'll pull the troops off the streets in six months, but he's waffled and he'll have no problem wiggling away from that commitment. (See more on that topic here from Alejandro Hope.) There's a good political reason for this: deploying the military is popular. And while there are obvious reasons for adopting a circumspect view toward US assistance during the campaign, to my knowledge, none of the candidates have promised a reduction in the security collaboration with the US.

There are, of course, some shifts in emphasis toward lowering violence, which are positive and could be the basis for a change of policies. However, that focus alone doesn't necessarily mean any operational changes. The article says that the candidates "eschew Mr. Calderón’s talk of dismantling the cartels and promising big seizures", but that strikes me as misleading. Thus far, the candidates have de-emphasized the seizures and takedowns of capos relative to other tasks, but they aren't saying that they are less interested in arrests. In his interview attached to the article, Peña Nieto even refers vaguely to increasing takedowns and the like, but while improving the judicial process that follow arrests. Moreover, even if we concede that he is less interested in arresting capos, it's not as though the security agencies are going to stop pursuing these goals just because of a different rhetorical bent from the incoming president during his campaign. Arresting Miguel Ángel Treviño will still represent a major coup for any general or admiral as of December 2nd, as will seizing a hundred tons of precursor chemicals. In other words, there is an ocean of distance between what we've heard so far and an actual change of direction.

It's worth considering some of the major planks of Mexico's current strategy:
  • Widespread prohibition of drugs in the US and in Mexico  
  • US-Mexico security cooperation
  • Mexico's deployment of the military in domestic security 
  • Institutional strengthening, particularly among the Federal Police, and cleansing of security agencies, which has been recently most evident in the PGR
  • Continued implementation of the judicial reform
Are any of those likely to change markedly in the next two years, based on what we've heard so far? I'm certain there will be some subtle changes under the next president, and we could well see a significant shift in the way the next government presents its security strategy to the nation, but a "major shift in the country's drug war strategy"? I haven't seen anything in the campaign that leads me to that conclusion, and certainly not with the certainty the article expresses.

Of course, the authors are presumably more connected to US and Mexican policy-makers than I, and therefore more aware of their concerns and intentions, so maybe that is the driver of this piece.


Mexfiles said...

Of course, I'm not convinced there ever was a strategy (or, rather they was a vague one... driving the narcos north into the arms of the U.S. ... which the U.S. found alarming when it started to work),and at the very least the next administration will stop digging itself into a deeper hole. Actually, the best comment on your reading was todays "Burro Hall" (http://burrohall.blogspot.mx/2012/06/drugs-win-drug-war.html)

pc said...

I agree, to a degree, about the absence of a real strategy, though I'm not convinced that the next administration will stop digging itself a bigger hole. It depends what you mean by that, and it depends on about a million different variables that are hard to predict ahead of time. But I don't think it's at all impossible that public security will look basically the same in two years as it does today.

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