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Column 122412 Brewer

Monday, December 24, 2012

Mexico's New President May be Nearsighted on Policing Issues

By Jerry Brewer

Prior to former Mexican President Felipe Calderon taking office on December 1, 2006, considerable deniability as to the asymmetric threats facing Mexico were exhibited. In Nuevo Laredo, Mexico around 200 people had been murdered in 2005, and many unknown victims simply vanished. The statistics for 2006 were already mounting.

Twenty police officers, including a chief of police and a Nuevo Laredo city councilman had been killed. The armed violence had resulted in the closing of the U.S. Consulate there for a brief period. Gun battles in Nuevo Laredo included the use of AK-47 assault rifles, a rocket propelled grenade launcher, and other high-powered and automatic weapons. Yet the Mexican presidential spokesman at the time, Ruben Aguilar, said that federal efforts to stop the violence in Nuevo Laredo "have been successful."

Both the U.S. and Mexico had consistent trouble in identifying and interpreting the violence and brutal gun battles that were occurring, often describing them simply as  "armed criminal groups using unusually advanced weapons" against each other.  Tony Garza, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico at the time, described the gun battles as "between armed criminal groups."

This myopic view prompted a Mexican police official, who asked not to be identified, to say that investigators had found numerous photographs of municipal police officers in one residence at a previous firefight site, with an apparent hit list of officials sentenced to death. Further intelligence revealed that each of the photographs listed the officer's name and assigned location, along with maps to their homes.

Under President Felipe Calderon's new direction the Mexican military and federal police became increasingly fluid strategically and tactically in carrying out enforcement operations. Massive raids on drug cartels were ordered, and Mexican soldiers and Federal Police were sent into key cities where Mexican gangs challenged and ambushed them head on.

Calderon was astute to emphatically understand that the true problem was the lack of a capable police cadre to even remotely undertake an enforcement posture against these well-armed and trained paramilitary enemies of the state. In fact, there was no reasonable expectation of any police force in Mexico having, or acquiring on its own, the resources necessary to effectively fight gangs and groups that were so well armed, trained and financed. Many thought that the drug gangs were better left alone, yet Calderon refused to allow them to conquer the Mexican homeland with impunity and not be challenged.

Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has essentially declared the Calderon era drug and gang interdiction efforts a failure. His Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karam, said last week that Calderon's "kingpin approach to the drug war had only splintered the cartels and created many smaller gangs." President Peña Nieto recently said that his main objective is to shift the country's approach to the drug war, from taking down high value targets to reducing crime. "We are all clear that Mexico now demands a country in peace, a quiet country, a safe country."

The critical issue of concern is that the President has not been clear with regard to his plans to reveal details of his proposed direction or strategies in pursuit of the rule of law in Mexico, and addressing the massive death and violence. Criminal violence has claimed more than 60,000 known victims since the latter part of 2006.

It well may be naïve to believe that a quick-fix, by the withdrawal of military-style police forces and interdiction tactics from public safety operations, will serve as a deterrent to transnational organized crime elements with superior firepower and the corrupting influences of their great wealth.

Much of the drug gangs' operating power structure in Mexico is now centralized in lower-level decision-making. This due to Calderon's previous and aggressive "kingpin" strategy.  Although the new president wants a rural policing gendarmerie of around 10,000 people "for rural" areas, as he seeks to honor a pledge to go after other crimes such as kidnappings, he must monitor his border with Guatemala.

Violent criminal activities and record setting murder rates in the northern triangle of Central America are attributed to Mexican drug cartels that move fluidly from Mexico into Guatemala and beyond. Mexico's southern border is a porous border, where many can run and seek temporary sanctuary. As well, much of this movement flows as far south as Argentina.

Effective conflict resolution will require the new Mexican administration to adapt to this ever changing environment of insurgency and counterinsurgency, and to find clear understandings regarding the complicated issues of policing that Mexico faces. Mexico remains a chokepoint for land routes of human trafficking and illicit contraband destined for North America.

This battle will continue to test the dilemma of police work and conventional military need. However, Mexicans cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand on issues of strategically securing and defending their homeland.

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Jerry Brewer is C.E.O. of Criminal Justice International Associates, a global threat mitigation firm headquartered in northern Virginia.  His website is located at http://www.cjiausa.org/.

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