By Phillip Smith
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto came into office in December vowing to break with his predecessor's reliance on the Mexican military to fight the so-called drug cartels. He said he wanted to concentrate on lowering crime and increasing public security instead of making high-profile busts or killings of cartel leaders, and he said he would create a militarized national police force to replace the military in drug fighting.
But Pena Nieto announced last week that the new militarized national police force has been shrunk from 40,000 to 5,000, with his government citing concerns from civil society that the initiative should go through the legislature. And his administration clarified that only 1,400 members had so far been recruited, and the "national gendarmarie" would not take the field until July 2014.
Meanwhile, even though the government has been touting a 20% reduction in the number of drug war killings, they blood-letting continues at the rate of about a thousand dead a month, and the military continues to be deeply involved. The number of dead in Mexico's drug war since Felipe Calderon called in the military six years ago is now somewhere north of 80,000, with additional tens of thousands "disappeared."
And while the government has said it was shifting its focus from going after cartel leaders to reducing crime, it has scored three major victories against cartel capos in the last six weeks. Authorities detained Zetas cartel kingpin Miguel Angel Trevino, alias "Z-40," on July 15, followed by Gulf cartel leader Mario Ramirez Trevino on August 17, and over the weekend, they managed to roll up "Ugly Betty," otherwise known as Alberto Carillo Fuentes, the head of the battered Juarez Cartel.
The Juarez Cartel had fought, and apparently lost, a nasty turf war with the Sinaloa Cartel, but remains a player in the country's drug trade. While the capture of leaders of the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, and the Juarez Cartel are significant, critics worry that their removal from the playing field will result in more violence as underlings fight to replace them.
The Mexican public is demonstrating mixed feelings over Pena Nieto's version of the drug war. According to an El Universal poll conducted last week, almost half thought that drug war violence had increased. Some 49% of respondents said it had, up nine points from February, while only 25% thought security had improved and another 25% thought things were about the same.
Still, only 34% said they thought Pena Nieto's strategy had made the country less safe, down from the 53% recorded in May 2012, during the last months of the Calderon presidency. And 59% said they had seen evidence of a new strategy, compared to 24% saying they saw no difference.
When it comes to restoring order and public safety, Mexicans were split on how to do it. Only 10% wanted more arrests and trials of cartel bosses, while 24% wanted to see the cartels smashed, and 27% said the priority should be to lower the violence.