Shadow Government

Mexico’s Tipping Point

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is facing the most serious crisis of his presidency as widespread outrage over the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students in the state of Guerrero in September has sparked a wave of national protests (full story here). Worsening the situation has been the government’s perceived ineffective response to the tragedy, ...

Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images
Pedro PARDO/AFP/Getty Images

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is facing the most serious crisis of his presidency as widespread outrage over the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students in the state of Guerrero in September has sparked a wave of national protests (full story here). Worsening the situation has been the government’s perceived ineffective response to the tragedy, as well as Peña Nieto’s decision to leave the country for the APEC Summit in China amidst the crisis, even as a separate scandal was unfolding surrounding the cancellation of multi-billion dollar construction bid won by a consortium allegedly linked to the president’s $7 million mansion. It has all contributed to the image of a presidency under siege.

Indeed, it was not so long ago that Peña Nieto was basking in international acclaim for ushering in a number of historic reforms to make Mexico more democratic and the economy more competitive — especially the energy sector, which for the first time in decades will be open to foreign investment.

However, all that progress has been offset by the tragedy in Guerrero, where a local mayor and his wife are believed to have conspired with a drug gang to "disappear" the students simply because a separate protest they were involved in threatened to disrupt a speech by the mayor’s wife. The atrocity is shocking even by Mexican standards.

While Peña Nieto assuredly deserves credit for his ambitious reform agenda, it is equally clear that his administration’s fitful approach to endemic security issues has now spiraled into a governability crisis.

First, a little background: Peña Nieto was elected president in 2012 by tapping the country’s weariness with the frontal assault on the drug cartels by his predecessor Felipe Calderón. That bloody confrontation resulted in the loss of some 100,000 Mexican lives, shocking the nation’s conscience. Peña Nieto promised a different approach to security, saying he would target threats to "personal security," such as kidnappings, extortion, and murder, as opposed to confronting organized crime and kingpins head-on. He said that the government should attack the root causes of crime, rather than combat the symptoms. 

After two years in power, his government continues to struggle to articulate, let alone implement, an alternative strategy for dealing with the organized crime that continues to threaten Mexico’s security and prosperity.

What Guerrero puts into bold relief is the huge chasm between security efforts at the federal level, where security forces have been reshuffled and consolidated, and local levels, where weak and frequently corrupt state and municipal institutions have proved almost helpless against the armed capability and audacity of the large criminal groups, who have successfully infiltrated those same institutions and forces. 

Guerrero should be a watershed moment for Mexico, convincing Mexico City elites that the security situation is not a distraction from the economic agenda, but instead that dismantling the operations of criminal enterprises is indispensable to their nations’ stability and prosperity. Clearly, ordinary citizens are finding the levels of criminal violence unbearable and are losing patience with government strategies.

It should be that Mexico faces difficult months ahead in which Peña Nieto’s government must restore stability and bolster confidence in the economy. Reforming dysfunctional local police agencies and local governments (for example, to prevent criminals from running for public positions) in poorer states like Guerrero must be at the top of the list. They are the enabling environments of the narco-fiefdoms.

Plus, they need to accelerate reforms in the broader justice system — in short, rule of law. The problem is systemic; the system simply lacks the capacity to control for corruption, abuse, and incompetence. As a result, it has for too long been subverted and manipulated by criminals. 

The image of a modernizing Mexico is incompatible with one of a narco-state, where violent criminal gangs not only control, but actually govern parts of the country. Mexicans want to feel safe in the streets and in their homes and rightly deserve to see tangible manifestations of progress on this front. As the Mexican author Enrique Krauze wrote in the New York Times, "The tide of criminal violence in Mexico must not only be contained; it must be stopped and pushed back."

The Obama administration in not a disinterested bystander in this ordeal — what happens in Mexico very much matters to the United States. To date, the administration has pretty much tiptoed around Peña Nieto deprioritizing of the security agenda. While there is certainly ongoing security cooperation behind the scenes, a renewed public commitment by Mexico and the United States to bilateral security cooperation would send a strong signal to criminal organizations in Mexico. The Obama administration should approach the Mexican government about visibly reasserting the bilateral security relationship and creating a roadmap of joint actions to address border issues and organized crime. It is imperative that we establish more contact between senior officials and their Mexican counterparts to build more trust and confidence on these critical issues. 

Post-Guerrero, Krauze writes, the viability of democracy in Mexico is at stake. Our own security is as well.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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