Mexico must curb cartel violence
Mexico must curb cartel violence
México es tan seguro como su municipio más violento
México es tan seguro como su municipio más violento
Op-Ed / Latin America & Caribbean 2 minutes

Mexico must curb cartel violence

While the White House's attention turned to a violent Middle East last week, right next door a vital ally faces a bloody challenge: In Mexico, 3,000 drug-cartel murders have been carried out in just the 100 days since the country's president, Enrique Peña Nieto, took office.

The new president has announced plans to address this problem - and to break with the policies of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. The devil will be in the details, but Peña Nieto's broad program is an important start.

Cartel murders since 2006 have surpassed 70,000 - nearly 20 times more than NATO combat deaths after a decade in Afghanistan.

When Calderón took office, he turned to the military, eventually enlisting 40 percent of the country's soldiers in the fight. The rationale seemed clear: No other force appeared capable, given a paltry national police force and state and local forces unable to take on cartels armed with assault weapons and grenade launchers (often purchased in the United States.) But the military, once a universally respected institution, was not ready for this new task, and soon faced charges of abusing human rights.

The International Crisis Group's new report, "Peña Nieto's Challenge: Criminal Cartels and Rule of Law in Mexico," traces the rise of the cartels under Calderón, the initial responses and the way forward being charted by Mexico's new president.

The loss of Mexican lives has been extreme; the economic losses are, perhaps, immeasurable. Cartels terrorize enough of rural Mexico to transport large quantities of drugs the entire length of the country on their way to U.S. consumers, to steal oil from pipelines (as much as $4 billion worth each year) and to extort and kidnap for profit.

Peña Nieto moved quickly to define new policies. He convinced the nation's three major political parties to sign a "Pact for Mexico" that includes a security section with important, though still somewhat vague, commitments for security reform.

He put some opposition figures into his security apparatus - including the former Mexico City police chief, who will face the huge task of establishing a coherent national, but federal, police structure centered in the Ministry of Government.

Equally important, that ministry is trying to implement a design that concentrates authority at the state level, centralizing control over municipal police. Peña Nieto also wants to create a 40,000-strong civilian gendarmerie, which could provide the right exit strategy for the military.

One of the most discussed provisions of the plan is a $9 billion commitment to community violence prevention, centered on poverty reduction, youth centers, job training and community cohesion. Such policies helped Ciudad Juárez break free of being among the most dangerous cities in the world.

Here is where the U.S. should be doing all it can to help Peña Nieto succeed. Mexico's economic importance, even given the cartels' destructiveness, is only growing. It now does $450 billion worth of trade annually with the U.S. Twelve million Mexicans live in the U.S., and more than 1 million U.S. citizens live or work in Mexico.

A renewed conversation when President Barack Obama visits in May also could be the basis for a joint U.S.-Mexico initiative to help the northern Central American countries address cartel-driven threats.

But it should begin with an honest acknowledgment that the U.S. must do more to reduce the demand for drugs and stem the flow of assault weapons southward.

The United Nations has scheduled a global debate on counter-drug policies for 2016, and the Organization of American States will issue its own report in May in regional responses to the trade of weapons and drugs.

Both the U.S. and Mexico will have to respond at the OAS General Assembly in June.

Neither Peña Nieto nor Obama can afford to allow their terms to end without fundamental reforms to make it harder for illicit drugs and transnational crime to destroy lives, damage economies and undermine the rule of law in both countries.

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