Poco progress in Mexico drug war

At a recent Washington power point presentation, a Mexican security analyst put up a slide reading: How Do You Say Quagmire in Spanish?

The answer: Michoacan.

If any one place symbolizes the continuing frustration facing the Mexican government dealing with drug gangs, it is this western state of 4.3 million, which might have suffered as many as 1,000 homicides in the past year. The fight there is not merely between law enforcement and criminal gangs but with the added element of locally organized and increasingly well-armed vigilantes. The violence has reached such a point that the central government is taking over law and order responsibility from local and state authorities.

In December 2012, a new Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto took office, promising a focus on reducing violence in a country riven by tens of thousands of killings in a five year war against drug cartels waged by his predecessor Felipe Calderon.

An assessment of Pena Nieto’s new focus came from Alejandro Hope, director of Security Policy at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO). Speaking to an overflow auditorium at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center, Hope headlined his presentation: “Not Quite at War, Not Quite at Peace”.

The homicide rate has declined from its May 2011 peak and from 22,856 that entire year to 19,726 in 2013. The totals are still way above their level of 2007, before Calderon opened his campaign against the cartels. But even those numbers are a bit deceptive, Hope added, with substantial drops in the death tolls in Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey, where civil society and business have assumed a larger role in crime prevention but not much change in other states.

While Pena Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government have made some changes in Calderon’s strategy, especially centralizing both national authority and intelligence cooperation with the United States, many elements remain the same, Hope said. Spending on security keeps growing, cartel kingpins are still top targets and Mexican ministries are still dealing with the U.S. government, albeit with more flowing through the Interior Ministry. And Pena Nieto’s plan to create a 40,000-strong National Gendarmerie has been pretty well stymied by opposition from the military, whose role in the drug fight remains a constitutional issue for the country.

The basic assessment, Hope said, is that the situation is better than in 2011, “but we are clearly not out of the woods.”

As daunting as crime and violence appear to be, they are not factoring in the decision of thousands of Mexicans to return to their country after years of living north of the border. That was one conclusion of a recent survey of returning migrants and one that seemed to confirm analyses of the past two years that Mexican immigration to the U.S. had peaked at slightly more than 12 million and that the number going back exceeds the number leaving.

A nonprofit group, based in San Antonio and Mexico City, called Mexicans and Americans Thinking Together (MATT), surveyed 600 returnees and presented its findings recently at another Wilson Center forum. An estimated 1.4 million Mexicans left the United States for their home country between 2005 and 2010.

According to the survey, most of the Mexicans never intended to remain permanently in the United States, and that 89 percent returned voluntarily and not under threat of deportation. The three major reasons for their return were family issues, nostalgia and trouble finding jobs in the United States. Although more than half said they had a very positive view of the U.S. and the fairness of its legal institutions, more than half said they have no plans to go back north.

Speaking ahead of the presentation, Mexico’s Ambassador to the United States Eduardo Medina Mora cited other factors in the migration shift, especially a large drop in the Mexican birthrate to levels just above those in the U.S., the development of a stronger manufacturing sector and the chance for returning Mexicans to apply entrepreneurial skills learned in the U.S. to growing business opportunities in their own country.

Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.