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Oct 1, 2008 | 21:50 GMT

Mexico: The Long Road to Security Reform

Summary
Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced Sept. 30 that he has sent a reform package to the Mexican Congress in an attempt to overhaul the country's security apparatus. Rising indignation over skyrocketing violence has put pressure on Calderon to find an effective solution to Mexico's security crisis. But the road to reform is long and hard, and unless Calderon can successfully eliminate deeply entrenched corruption, these moves may have little impact.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent a security reform package to the Mexican Congress on Sept. 30. Mexico's security apparatus is waging a bitter war against drug cartels. And as the death toll rises, Calderon faces increasing pressure to bring the violence under control. However, despite Calderon's concerted efforts, security reform will be extremely difficult to achieve. Forged in a meeting Calderon held with Mexican security officials and the leaders of all 32 Mexican states, the bill is the latest in a series of reforms. This bill proposes the creation of a national database of criminals and increased penalties for drug- trafficking offenses, while substituting rehabilitation therapy for drug abusers in place of incarceration. The measure also establishes a new department that will oversee anti-corruption efforts in the federal forces and proposes to enhance coordination of state- and municipal-level police forces with federal-level forces. Calderon's recent initiatives are by no means out of the ordinary for his administration, which has been characterized by a great deal of reform. However, the security situation in Mexico has given the issue new impetus as the violence increases. The death toll for cartel-related violence for 2008 thus far stands at about 3,100, compared to a total death toll of 2,500 in 2007. To put that in context, the total number of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq since the beginning of the war in 2003 is just under 3,400. Mexico stands a good chance of beating that number in 2008 alone. Public opposition to the rising violence has started growing, and anti-violence groups recently organized a countrywide march that could herald a new era of public unrest in reaction to the violence. This mood was exacerbated by the Sept. 15 attack on Mexican Independence Day celebrations in Morelia, Michoacan state, which displayed a heretofore unseen willingness on the cartels' part to blatantly attack unarmed civilians. Though Calderon's approval ratings remain high, the people of Mexico also believe that the government is losing the war against the drug cartels. Despite this impression, the government has certainly scored some successes against the cartels. Through the deployment of around 36,000 troops to different cartel hot spots around the country, Mexico has managed to disrupt some operations. These successes have included the capture of a semi-submersible vessel loaded with nearly six tons of cocaine in July, and the interdiction of 8,000 drums of methamphetamine ingredients in Guadalajara also in July. But these successes have been partial, and the cartels have clearly started adjusting their tactics, including shifting some of their operations farther down into Central America. And meanwhile, the cartel-related violence in Mexico has only risen. The fundamental cause of the violence in Mexico is not only the security efforts Calderon has led against the cartels, but also the fracturing of alliances and territorial control among the cartels that the Mexican military's presence has incurred. The violence includes clashes between security forces and cartels — particularly as cartels have increased their targeting of police officers — but also shows the raging struggle for territory among major drug traffickers. In the midst of this chaos, Calderon is attempting to make a series of reforms that will give Mexico the sort of ideally coordinated and modern police force it needs. But the Mexican government faces a set of determined, violent, organized cartels that have between $40 billion and $100 billion of income per year at their disposal. The cartels actively and effectively use both violence and bribery to control local officials and have the power to completely undermine government initiatives through the corruption of government law enforcement personnel. Thus, not only does the government face challenges from the outside, it also faces deep and abiding corruption in its ranks — corruption that only gets worse as more law enforcement agencies become involved in combating the drug trade. In the long term, Calderon aims to gradually remove the military from the cartel fight. The military has so far been the main tool that he has used against the cartels. But not only is it logistically difficult and undesirable to keep the military deployed in long-term domestic operations (the military deployment is coming up on its two-year anniversary), Mexico also runs a certain risk of introducing corruption into the military. But in order to move the military out of its operational position, Calderon must substantially reorganize the federal police. He has begun to do so by merging the Federal Investigative Agency (AFI) and the Federal Preventive Police (PFP). Designed to centralize control over the agencies and put anti-corruption policies into effect, it is a policy that has so far gone poorly — with federal agents even staging public protests in opposition to the merger. However, although structural shifts such as the AFI-PFP merger will allow the government to make strides in gaining control of the country, the fundamental issue is how to combat corruption. The government must find a way to protect law enforcement agents from being targeted by the cartels, and it must also somehow make honesty more profitable than colluding with the cartels. Until Calderon can address these fundamental problems, it does not matter how many reform packages he is able to pass through Congress. Ultimately, they will amount to little more than a timely publicity stunt for the government during a time of rising indignation.
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