Mexico's New Security Policy: The Smokescreen

Last week the Mexican government gave its first security presentation since the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the interior minister, announced that the drug-related murder rate had dropped 17% during the first four months of the new administration compared to the last four months of the administration of former president Felipe Calderón. Analysts across Mexico cried foul, claiming erroneous calculation criteria. Major newspapers, which keep their own tallies as government statistics are notoriously unreliable, have reported that numbers have remained the same or risen over the same period of time. Despite controversy over statistics, the fact remains that crime has become a less frequent topic of conversation in Mexico and abroad.

The Economist's special report on Mexico briefly touched on crime but primarily emphasized Mexico's sound fiscal policy and enviable economic stability. Several scholars have declared that "Mexico is the new Brazil" in terms of economic potential and foreign investment. Commentators lauded Peña Nieto's first one hundred days, praising reforms in labor, education, telecommunications and energy. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman gleefully proclaimed Mexico the "comeback kid." The tone of the dialogue has changed since coverage of Mexico focused on shootouts, high-profile assassinations, femicides, and mass graves. But why, amid all the hype, has Mexico's security situation ceased to be a topic of discussion if it has not, in fact, fundamentally changed?

This shift in rhetoric is largely due to Peña Nieto, who has employed a policy different from that of his predecessor. Calderón favored a "decapitation" strategy in which security forces targeted high-ranking cartel members, and paraded arrests and assassinations in front of the public. Calderón attacked hotspots, such as his home state of Michoacán and Mexico's murder capital, Ciudad Juárez, with surges of soldiers and military equipment. Even before a formal trial, photographs of supposed criminals posed with drugs, arms, and cash were splashed across the pages of local and national newspapers. Calderón made security his defining issue, even as his strategy caused further violence and distracted the public from other notable accomplishments, such as universal health care and global environmental leadership.

Peña Nieto prefers a subtler approach: the smokescreen. He recently stated that the primary goal of his administration is to reinstate "peace and tranquility" in the country in order to unleash its potential. He aims to reduce violence, not root out the cartels. Instead of following Calderón's head-on approach, Peña Nieto has largely avoided talking about crime in Mexico, even though it remains a daily preoccupation for many of the country's citizens. Peña Nieto has pushed ahead with what his Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, is historically known for: building consensus, removing political obstacles, and getting laws on the books. Details about security policy have been released slowly and unenthusiastically.

Compared to the speed and efficiency with which Peña Nieto addressed labor and education reforms, his plan for a national gendarmerie is being implemented at a glacial pace. The administration has released several confusing and contradictory statements about its structure and purpose. His proposed 2014 security budget emphasizes crime prevention, but again, plans remain vague. As Alejandro Hope of Insight Crime notes, the newly inaugurated National Security Commission is little more than a webpage. Security is clearly low on the priority list for this administration.

Meanwhile, mainstream Mexican newspapers report anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 drug-related homicides in the first four months of Peña Nieto's presidency. Vigilante groups have been growing in strength and numbers across Guerrero and Michoacán states, and are posing new challenges to the rule of law in Mexico's perpetually turbulent southwestern coast. As a number of both large and small cartels battle for territory in central Mexico, violence is on the rise in states like Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, and Jalisco.

In addition to the government's reluctance to discuss security, violence against journalists increases self-censorship, further obscuring the situation. A cloud of misinformation has surrounded several recent shootouts in the state of Tamaulipas where the lives of journalists are threatened. Major newspapers are threatened constantly. The dissemination of information is often left to anonymous blogs and Twitter, who are also challenged by organized crime. The security-focused Facebook page Valor por Tamaulipas was forced to close in early April after organized criminals offered cash rewards for the names of its administrator.

Peña Nieto has also outlawed the kind of "gotcha" photographs referred to above. The move is certainly fairer to suspects and discourages narco hero-worship, but it also reduces the flow of information to the public. The lack of transparency under the current administration harkens back to the PRI's 71-year rule, famously referred to as "the perfect dictatorship."

However, the smokescreen approach certainly has its advantages. For starters, Mexico's reputation abroad has improved. With its cohesive political environment and promising reforms, Mexico is an increasingly attractive business destination. Trade continues to boom and Mexico boasts a trade-to-GDP ratio higher than China's. Playing the long game, an improved economy in Mexico could expand the country's middle class, already the largest in Latin America. This could provide more decent-paying jobs and bring more people, particularly young disenfranchised males, into the folds of the formal economy, and away from the ranks of the cartels. It might be a roundabout way of dealing with Mexico's insecurity, but, after six years of questionable security policy, many Mexicans are open to a new approach.

The smokescreen has diverted focus from insecurity to economic growth. Peña Nieto's approach, when confronted with intractable problems, is to concentrate on making improvements where feasible and then to wait and see how the problems pan out. But when the smoke clears, investors, journalists, and policymakers may rediscover a grave problem still remains.