Back to the Future: Enrique Pena's Cartel War

Austin Bay

6/26/2013 12:01:00 AM - Austin Bay

During the 2012 Mexican presidential campaign, candidate Enrique Pena Nieto assured voters that if elected he would pursue a new and far less violent approach to reducing the threat to national order posed by Mexico's criminal cartels.

"Pena 2012" guaranteed Mexico's beleaguered citizens he would be a very different leader than their current president, Felipe Calderon. Since Mexican presidents serve a single six-year term, Calderon wasn't Pena's election opponent. However, la guerra contra el narcotrafico (the Cartel War) and Calderon's security policies were justifiably major election issues.

Pena 2012 portrayed Calderon's record as one of overreaction and subsequent failure. The media-savvy Pena accused the media-savaged Calderon of committing a stupid blunder. In mid-December 2006, less than two weeks after his own inauguration, Calderon ordered the Mexican Army to quell cartel-inspired violence in the western state of Michoacan.

According to Pena's campaign narrative, the Cartel War was not a war. Calderon's hasty decision to use the armed forces militarized a law enforcement problem. Combat soldiers are not trained to investigate crimes. Mexico needs well-armed police to defeat the cartels, like a national gendarmerie. Yes, Pena said, Mexican Army soldiers can provide security, but when confronting criminal cartels they should be the force of last resort.

For seven decades, until the 2000 election, Pena's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominated Mexico. This is a hard truth: The PRI's corruption and cronyism created the Mexico in which narcotics trafficking organizations thrive. Corrupted institutions nurtured by 70 years of one-party domination don't disappear in a dozen years. The PRI's legacy of corruption, to include conniving with organized crime, sapped Pena's campaign. Attacking Calderon's alleged ineptitude deflected criticism of the PRI.

To the immense benefit of Pena's narrative, PRI politicians wield inordinate influence over major Mexican media, particularly television. Emotionally charged 2012 critiques of Calderon rarely included an accurate historical summary of the murderous chaos afflicting Michoacan in fall 2006. You can find the facts exist. On Dec. 12, 2006, the BBC reported that drug gangs controlled territory within Michoacan and the "state's Pacific coastline has become a haven for drug traffickers." In 2006, the gangs murdered over 500 people.

The BBC noted that Calderon's "Joint Operation Michoacan" involved federal police, military personnel, federal investigative agents and federal prosecutors.

Calderon decided to use the military as a last resort, and even then, he used it as part of a security team. Here are two reasons he made the decision: (1) Drug gang firepower and cash had overwhelmed local police forces and government institutions. (2) The Mexican people knew they could rely on their military because it was the one institution the PRI had never completely corrupted.

Calderon understood that the Cartel War was a particularly dangerous (and likely decade-long) phase of a complex, multi-decade effort to modernize Mexico and eliminate the corruption that undermines government institutions. He established astute judicial and police reform programs designed to produce trustworthy and competent police forces capable of replacing the military as the lead agency. These reforms, however, will take years to succeed, and many of these interim years will be violent.

Which brings us to President Pena -- Pena 2013 -- and his security options.

In early May, Pena sent 1,000 federal policemen to Michoacan to combat cartel violence. Pena gave over all operational command to an army general. On May 20, 4,000 soldiers and marines reinforced the police. The increasing number of community defense militias (comunitarios) spurred Pena's act with decisive force. Though often characterized as vigilante groups, federal officials now admit that the gangs threaten rural Michoacan village; local police are either unreliable or outgunned; lacking military protection, villagers defend themselves.

Reality 2013 guts Pena's 2012 narrative. The crisis -- his crisis -- in Michoacan cannot wait. The Michoacan operation is Pena's first major military operation. If he really is the new, reformed PRI president he claims to be, it will not be his last.