MEXICO CITY – Mexico's next president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has not detailed his drug war strategy but has promised to halve the number of kidnappings and murders during his six-year term by moving law enforcement away from showy drug busts and focusing on protecting ordinary citizens from gangs.
The ambiguity of Pena Nieto's drug war plans has fed fears at home and abroad that he might look the other way if cartels smuggle drugs northward without creating violence in Mexico. Many analysts wonder if Peña Nieto is holding back politically sensitive details of his plans, or simply doesn't know yet how he'll be prosecute the next stage of Mexico's drug war.
That is what he means by reducing the violence: Go after those folks who are actually hurting, assaulting and kidnapping people.
- U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas
Some hints are starting to seep out. A close acquaintance, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, told The Associated Press that the president-elect has discussed a new offensive against the smaller, local gangs that have cropped up in many Mexican states and earn money through kidnapping and extortion in addition to drug dealing.
President Felipe Calderón's 5 1/2-year war against the big cartels has been criticized by some for fracturing control of territory and smuggling routes, spawning smaller gangs like La Linea in Chihuahua state and La Barredora in the city of Acapulco that view ordinary citizens as their primary source of illicit income.
"In Mexico you have the drug cartels and then you've got regional gangs that are taking advantage of what's happening there," Cuellar said. "That is what he means by reducing the violence: Go after those folks who are actually hurting, assaulting and kidnapping people."
Analysts have said any new focus necessarily means fewer of Mexico's limited resources would go to fighting the biggest smugglers of drugs to the U.S.
But Cuellar, who has met with Peña Nieto several times in the U.S. and Mexico, stressed that the man who will become president Dec. 1 insists he will still target larger organizations such as the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels, the rival groups that have become Mexico's dominant criminal organizations.
"He's told me he's going to go after everybody," Cuellar said. "He said, 'It's the drug cartels and the gangs, and I'm going to reduce the violence.'"
Since Sunday's vote, Peña Nieto has repeatedly promised to continue Calderón's confrontation with cartels, sending messages to both Mexican and U.S. audiences that his new approach will not mean quiet accords with drug gangs in exchange for a reduction in violence that has killed more than 47,500 people since late 2006.
"We will wage an effective fight against the capos, against the heads of the cartels, but clearly also with a rethinking that will allow a lowering of violence," Peña Nieto told a small group of reporters Monday. "There will be no truce, no pact with organized crime."
Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ran Mexico for 71 unbroken years of autocratic rule that ended in 2000, and it was accused of systemic corruption that included payoffs from drug lords in exchange for protection.
Despite Peña Nieto's firm disavowals, many voters said Sunday that they were voting for the PRI in part because they believed its return to power would bring back those backroom deals and reduce violence.
Among those skeptical about a return of the PRI has been U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who congratulated Peña Nieto on Twitter, followed by: "will be interesting to see how he approaches drug trafficking & other issues of mutual concern."
A day later, Peña Nieto thanked McCain and tweeted his response: "In the struggle against drug trafficking, Mexico's undeniable obligation, we will look for immediate results."
Peña Nieto has signaled that he is open to consideration of new approaches to the drug war, saying during the campaign and again this week that he favors a debate on legalization of drugs, even though he opposes the idea personally.
But so far, Peña Nieto's few concrete proposals point more toward continuity than change.
Since his victory, Peña Nieto has repeated a campaign pledge to build a 40,000-member paramilitary police force that would be dispatched to areas most in the grip of organized crime.
The idea for such a force appears at least partly aimed at assuaging critics of Calderón's overwhelming dependence on Mexican soldiers and marines to confront drug cartels. Rights groups and policing experts say that approach brought human rights violations, an overemphasis on force and delays in building capable civilian police forces.
Peña Nieto's new gendarmes, however, would be largely recruited from the ranks of the armed forces, raising questions about whether the proposal is simply a repackaging of Calderón's use of the military.
The president-elect offered one new detail about the proposed National Gendarmerie on Monday, writing in The New York Times that the force would be deployed specifically to rural areas.
Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former official in Mexico's CISEN intelligence agency, described the gendarmerie plan as "half-baked." He said it could weaken the armed forces by pulling away experienced troops, and he warned against moving security resources out of violent urban areas where they are badly needed, particularly in deeply troubled border states like Coahuila and Tamaulipas.
"Who's going to be patrolling the streets of Nuevo Laredo, Torreon?" Hope said. "I think they haven't thought through their position."
Peña Nieto also says he wants to increase security spending and nearly double the ranks of the federal police by 35,000 officers, continuing Calderón's strategy of bolstering the national force and using it in places where local law enforcement is weak or corrupt.
And he wants to consolidate Mexico's thousands of notoriously ineffective local police departments with the 31 state forces, another idea proposed but only partially completed under Calderón.
The similarity of Peña Nieto's publicly announced plans to those of his predecessor has fed doubts.
"I'm more and more convinced that they don't really have a blueprint," said Eric Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Peña Nieto's record as governor of the State of Mexico, which adjoins Mexico City, also points to the likelihood of continuity in the national drug war. His term saw aggressive policing against organized crime, but unremarkable results in the numbers of violent crimes.
In a move widely seen as a gesture to reassure the U.S. of his commitment to the war on drugs, Peña Nieto has hired the respected former head of Colombia's national police, retired Gen. Oscar Naranjo, to be an outside adviser to the security Cabinet that has yet to be named.
Naranjo has offered no hints of any proposals he has for Mexico, however, and that has brought skepticism about whether he will be able to influence decisions from outside the Cabinet and the military chain of command.
"Naranjo is not going to play any significant role whatsoever. He's a PR stunt," Hope said. "He's going to write a couple of papers and give a couple of conferences."
One brake on Peña Nieto's power will be his unexpected small margin of victory, winning roughly 38 percent of the presidential vote for a less than seven point lead over leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Also, the PRI won't have a majority in either house of Congress.
A similar situation hampered Calderón's ability to push through Congress his proposed structural reforms for Mexican law enforcement. But some experts think Peña Nieto's political skills will allow him to get legal changes.
"He has skills that Calderón didn't. He has first-rate operators and he's a first-rate political operator," said Luis Rubio, president of the Center for Development Research, an independent think tank.