Will Mexico see a new narco reality under President Peña Nieto?

Is Mexican President Peña Nieto going to decriminalize the drug war? He promised lower levels of violence when he took office, and this week appealed to the public to judge his policies after one year has passed.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP
Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto waves to the public after an event at the Technological Museum in Mexico City, last week.

InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Steven Dudley's research here.

After just over 100 days in office, two story lines are emerging about Enrique Peña Nieto: one says that the new Mexican president is subtly continuing his predecessor’s "war on drugs;" the other that he is backing off, creating the conditions for a more "peaceful" underworld.

Statistically, there has been no significant change in homicides. In fact, according to Reforma's homicide count, released in mid-March, there has been a slight uptick in organized crime related murders around the country. According to the paper, there were on average 23 "drug-related homicides" per day during the first 100 days of Peña Nieto's administration, compared to 21 per day during the last 100 days of previous President Felipe Calderon (Reforma classes homicides as drug-related based on type of weapon; style of the execution; markings and messages near the body or bodies; presence of drugs; and official reports connecting the deaths to organized crime.)

Military troops are also present in similar numbers and in virtually the same areas as before Peña Nieto became president on Dec. 1. Federal police continue to patrol many of the same cities, and the administration says that it is continuing with its plan to create a gendarmarie, a 10,000-strong special police force. The government also continues to transform the country's justice system from a written inquisitorial to an oral adversarial system, purge police units, and centralize most security bodies into a single authority (under the Interior Ministry, instead of the now-defunct Public Security Secretariat - SSP).

The government has said it will shift its attention to prevention programs, but much of the funds assigned to these programs were already designated during the Calderon administration. In fact, it is difficult to tell which are the new programs and which are the old ones in what the government said was a $9 billion plan.

What has changed is the rhetoric that accompanies this strategy. The Peña Nieto administration is talking about "peace," and has almost completely stopped speaking about the fight against organized crime. About the only remnant of the past is this administration's penchant to deem the victims "criminals," language that got the previous administration in hot water with civil society organizations.

There are, however, some subtle shifts occurring that warrant continued observation, and may signal a more significant change from the last administration than just softer rhetoric.

First, the number of investigations into "crimes against health" is at its lowest point in the last 15 years. Most "crimes against health" are drug trafficking crimes. This is a federal offense in Mexico, and an increase in these cases under Calderon helped cause a spike in the federal prison population.

According to data collected by Carlos Vilalta, an investigator at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), authorities initiated 783 investigations for "crimes against health" in December 2012, and 826 in January 2013.

Compare this with the Calderon administration's first two months in office, with 10,416 investigations for "crimes against health" initiated in December 2006, and 10,901 during January 2007. In fact, during his six year term, Calderon's administration averaged 6,567 investigations into "crimes against health" a month (See InSight Crime interview with Carlos Vilalta).

Two months is too little time to draw any definitive conclusions on this type of data, and, as is evident in the graph [see original post], the decline in drug investigations began before Peña Nieto took power. But Vilalta says the first two months is a good indicator of where this may be headed. It is possible that the government is lessening the pursuit of criminals on drug charges, perhaps as part of a strategy to draw back the war on drugs.

What's more, it may already be having an impact. While it may be difficult to imagine a "narco-pact" of the type that make Mexicans nostalgic about 1980s and 1990s, when criminals were broadly left to their own devices in exchange for keeping violence low, there are some strange narco-smoke signals that have emerged in recent days that give even the most skeptical amongst us pause.

Take the declarations of the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios), via strategically placed narco-banners in their stronghold of Michoacan state. The Knights are one of the more combative of the large criminal organizations. They once organized a series of synchronized attacks on several police stations in Michaocan, which included rocket-propelled grenades and .50 caliber shotguns.

In their banners, the group said they were retreating. "Beginning today," the banners read, "we will leave the care of society in the hands of the municipal, state and federal authorities."

Also, in recent days, authorities announced a gang truce in Guadalajara between some of the city's toughest gangs. While very much a local initiative, the truce, if it is really in place, is another illustration that there may be another plan, one that most are not seeing or hearing, but one that may lead to a slight reprieve from the violence.

When he came to power, Peña Nieto promised lower levels of violence, and this week he appealed to the public to judge his policies after one year had passed. Still, we may be getting an early glimpse of how he plans on reaching his goals, which may be trying to please too many people at once and may end up pleasing no one at all.

These shifts, especially with regards to drug prosecutions, may delight those who are calling for "harm reduction" in Mexico's war on drugs but only if they are reducing arrests of petty drug offenders.

As the Transnational Institute (TI) describes it, harm reduction would mean prioritizing "interventions that reduce the harms associated with the existence of drug markets while avoiding those harms stemming from traditional supply reduction efforts themselves." In this case, less arrests of petty drug offenders would help reduce the harms associated with heavy-handed attempts to reduce the supply. (TI has a useful interactive map to show where harm reduction is being implemented worldwide.) To be clear, the harm reduction proponents are certainly not asking the Mexican President to stop jailing the big, violent narcos.

However, it is not clear that this is the current Mexican administration's strategy, and Peña Nieto is walking a fine line with both sides of the debate. On the other side of that debate is the United States, the world's policeman when it comes to drug policy. The United States was a big proponent of Calderon's strategy and perhaps his biggest fan in the region. Now, if the United States senses that Peña Nieto's strategy is less about a strategic shift in policy and more about capitulation to large drug trafficking interests, then relations could become more tense than they have been in years.

– Steven Dudley is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here. Additional reporting provided by Andres Ortiz Sedano.

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