Strategic Insights: Mexico—New Directions, Continuity, and Obstacles in the Fight Against Transnational Organized Crime


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Dr. R. Evan Ellis From February 15-23, 2016, I1 had the opportunity to travel to Mexico to conduct interviews with Mexican security experts about the evolution of transnational organized crime in the country and the work of Mexico's current government to combat it. My trip to Mexico coincided with the February 12-17 visit to Mexico by Pope Francis. The Pope also focused on issues related to organized crime during stops in Michoacán2 and Ciudad Juarez.3 This focus briefly highlighted to the world the gravity of Mexico’s struggle, and the importance of prevailing for the future of the country and the region. While I did not have the good fortune to see Pope Francis, the following are some of my preliminary insights regarding Mexico’s struggle against organized crime, based on my interviews and supporting research. In comparing the perspectives of Mexican government officials, the Armed Forces and police to those of academics, journalists, teachers and taxi drivers, the range of perceptions regarding what is happening in the country is stunning. At the popular level, cynicism is profound regarding President Enrique Peña Nieto and his government, the principal political parties, and security and justice institutions at the national, state, and local levels. In the tradition of surreal drama reflected in Mexico’s television art form, the telenovela, allegations abound of criminal connections involving President Peña Nieto, senior government, Army, and intelligence figures, and even the media outlet Televisa, and senior Mexican Clergy. Without attempting to evaluate the veracity of such allegations, it is clear that Mexico’s struggle against transnational organized crime is compounded by a profound crisis of public confidence. Nonetheless, beyond such cynicism, the Peña Nieto government has made important changes in both style and substance in combating criminal cartels, gangs, and related internal security challenges in Mexico. In the “National Development Plan” for the current sexenio, President Peña Nieto and his government have emphasized a “multidimensional” approach toward security, giving attention in the document to the integration of security and developmental goals and societal health.4 With the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to the Presidency following a 12-year hiatus, Peña Nieto has sought to more actively involve state-level governments in the security decision-making process, given that the majority of states in Mexico have historically been, and continue to be, governed by the PRI. Peña Nieto has expanded the outreach to states not only through the influential council of governors (CONAGO),5 but also through the broadly inclusive, albeit unwieldy, “National Council on Public Security.” This council meets twice per year, as well as in special sessions such as that called by Peña Nieto upon his inauguration. It includes Mexico’s governors and their security officials, a representation of mayors and non-governmental organizations, the heads of both houses of the Mexican Congress, both of the nation’s separate Armed Forces, and a variety of other federal organizations. Beyond holding such coordinating meetings, the president has also targeted five impoverished “special economic zones,” principally in the south of the country, to receive a special combination of security and development assistance, such as infrastructure projects. However, these projects are either in their infancy or still to be defined, and correspondingly, the fruits of such efforts have yet to emerge. The Peña Nieto government has also increased efforts to integrate the activities of the Mexican Army, Navy, and law enforcement institutions in combatting organized crime. Symbolically, under Peña Nieto, the government is using a single press spokesman to announce the results of all operations, rather than separate spokespersons from the Army, Navy and other organizations, as was the case previously. For similar reasons,

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